When I graduated from high school, my dad took me on a celebratory trip to New York City.
This was a big deal – I never travelled much.
But an even bigger deal was where we were bound – Broadway.
In fact, in the 5 days we trekked through the Big Apple, most of our time was spent in darkened theaters, soaking up the spectacle of the stage.
We got to see Julie Andrews star in Victor, Victoria, just a few years before she lost her singing voice to botched surgery. We had the best seats in the house – 5 rows back, dead center – that we got off a real New York City scalper.
We also saw the original cast in the musical Rent which included future diva Idina Menzel (I think that’s how you say it) and heartthrob Taye Diggs.
And yeah, we checked out the Statue of Liberty … and we might have gone to the Empire State building … but I don’t really remember.
See, I was mad about the stage. I grew up acting in every play I could since I was een 9 years old … and in my senior year, I had just finished directing and acting in a massive original musical that my dad actually wrote. (He and I had shared the stage together in other plays too.)
But even while I was enjoying the shows in the Big City …
… part of me was eager to return home.
Because something was waiting for me.
No, not a crazy lineup of post – high school parties …
… it was a book.
A book whose characters had wormed their way into my mind, whispering for me to return.
I was reminded of this in a recent thread in Copy Chief, when fellow Chieftan Marcin Hakemer-Fernandez brought up the book.
The book was Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, about a group of highly advanced children who are given a simple homework assignment: save the human race.
Scott Card is a master at burrowing inside a character’s head – and dragging you along with him.
In the book, you begin to see the world through Ender’s eyes – feel his gut-wrenching fear of his older brother and the sharp remorse he feels when he destroys his enemies.
Interestingly, Card had to dodge bullets from some unexpected critics: teachers of gifted children.
Children don’t talk that way, they chastised. (To which he was tempted to reply, they know better than to talk that way to you.)
Card had this to say about this troubling impact of his story on some adults:
And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective–the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.
In other words, Card wrote from the viewpoint of these genius children – focusing on their hopes and fears – so that the reader “became” them, at least for a little while.
And it was that experience of slipping in the mind of someone else – in Ender’s case, someone amazing and good – that I couldn’t wait to get back to.
That was the gift of Card’s storytelling – igniting my empathy.
In fact, you could argue that the central theme of the book is empathy – the ability to feel what another person is feeling.
And empathy is arguably the most coveted quality in high-level copywriting.
“Your NUMBER ONE job as a marketer is to get in synch with your customer’s innermost desires,” says John Carlton in Kick-Ass Secrets of a Marketing Rebel.
Job Number One requires empathy.
And one of the best places to hone your empathy chops is in the pages of a good story.
In fact, two psychologists, Dr.’s Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar, showed that people who read novels display superior empathy: they are better at understanding others and navigating the complex dance of society.
And even children improved their empathy after stories were read to them.
Stories help us to do this because they simulate reality, allowing us to “walk a mile in someone’s moccasins.”
They show us not just what a person did but why she did it: the deep motives.
These are the hidden reasons we may never share with others;
Either because these motives are too embarrassing …
… or because we might not even be aware of them.
So a good story actually goes beyond real life, because in real life we never can get inside someone else’s head.
And we can learn how to create this empathy by taking careful note of how authors ensnare us in the minds of their characters.
The next time you fall in love with a character, ask yourself when it happens:
Is it when you watch the hero slay the dragon? Or when you learn why he slays the dragon (because his village and all his family was burned to a crisp)?
Notice too when a villain becomes sympathetic … it’s usually the moment we discover his motives and understand his world.
I remember watching a minor character named Frank from the show ER. He was a loud-mouthed bigot, who once bundled a gift to an unwed mother with these words: “That’s for you and the little bastard.”
But then there was an episode that showed the gentle care he gave his developmentally disabled daughter – and suddenly you understood another side of the man.
When we learn to create that kind of empathy with our customers — plunge into the hidden motivations — we might actually start wanting what they want.
So if it’s true that we’re always looking out for our own best interests, perhaps the best way to champion someone else’s desires (like in a sales letter) is to “become” them through empathy.
As Ender says:
“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
And if we can do that, all we have to do is sell to ourselves.
Empathy is forged when we see the motives and passions hidden inside another person.
Stories — when told well — are the high octane fuel of empathy.
What characters have you fallen in love with?
Let me know in the comments below. And as always,
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which I ponder the lesson from one of my favorite Christmas movies.