Can You Fake Caring?
That’s the question a young copywriter asked me the other day. The topic was expressing sincerity in fundraising letters, and I just quoted him (not too pompously, I hope) the Robert Frost line, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
“Yes, I get the importance of being ‘real’ when you’re writing to donors and prospects,” he’d said, “but what if you’re raising funds for a cause or organization that you don’t have a strong feeling for? Or worse, one that you actively disagree with? How do you deal with that and still write emotional appeals? Can you fake caring?”
The short answer is yes, you can fake anything if that’s what you’re determined to do.
The better answer, however, is to pose a different question: Sure you can fake caring, but why would you want to when you can just as easily learn it?
When a writer struggles to develop an emotional connection with an organization, the problem might not be the mission as much as the writer’s lack of empathy.
Remember empathy is not sympathy. You do not have to agree with another person’s point of view to understand it. But seeing things the way someone else sees them, climbing inside their skin and walking around in it, as Atticus Finch said, is a necessary skill for any writer who wants their words to make a difference.
Like most talents, people are born with varying degrees of empathy, but anyone can learn to develop it with some practice. It’s not even that difficult. Here are some tactics you can practice to help you experience life the way someone else does:
- Talk less and listen more, and actually listen. Remind yourself that the person talking to you knows something you don’t know, and it might be very much to your advantage to pay attention.
- Ask someone how their day is going. After they say “fine” (or whatever they say), keep engaging them by saying, “tell me about it.” Then lean in, look in their eyes and really focus on what they’re saying. You’ll be surprised at how many of your presumptions and stereotypes about people begin to melt away.
- Spend time with people who are different from you. Social media would seem like the obvious place to do that, but you have to be careful not to be drawn into the destructive shout-fests, which have become all too common online. Try to search out individuals and groups who still value the respectful exchange of ideas. They’re out there if you look for them.
- Read quality fiction from a range of authors. Some fascinating studies have shown that reading literary fiction actually sharpens our ability to experience the world from other perspectives.
Cultivating empathy toward others is about a lot more than fundraising, of course. It will certainly make you a better writer, and it’s likely to make you a happier person as well.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.