We’re having an empathy crisis. And there’s only one cure.

Right now, almost every day seems to bring another headline that sounds like it happened in a film.

From violent attacks on innocent civilians, to extreme political voices finding mainstream support, to a widening gap between the rich and poor playing out in anger and scapegoating – suddenly everything seems to be about extremes. Why is that?

The trend mirrors something that’s been going on online for a while.

The lightning-fast growth of the internet has forced us to adapt quickly to handle a never-ending feed of information that our brains weren’t designed to cope with. To survive, we’ve learned to filter out run-of-the-mill, inoffensive, vanilla messages and scan instead for ideas that stand out.

To the point that now, to make any impact at all, you have to say something designed to get a reaction.

This seems to apply to almost every area of our lives. Even this research on online dating found that “people who divided opinion did far better than those who everyone agreed were cute.”

Technology is disconnecting us, too. Mobiles and the internet have made it possible to reach any other human being, anywhere in the world. But they’ve also allowed us to distance ourselves from the ones in the same room, house, school or office.

Why meet up when you can call? Why call when you can email? Why email when you can text? Why send four different texts when you can put a picture on Facebook, and all your friends will see it?

Let’s be honest. A lot of the time we’re guilty of using technology to avoid dealing with other people up close. To sidestep hearing their voices, seeing their facial expressions, dealing with their inconvenient emotional reactions or opposing viewpoints. In so many ways, our new, connected status has made our world smaller than ever.

And these technological barriers make it easy to misplace the thing that makes us, humans, extraordinary: our empathy.

Without it, we’re quicker to attack, hate, and take extreme ‘them and us’ viewpoints. Or, as this study found, simply to say and do things on the internet that we would never say or do face to face, when we would have to witness the pain we’d caused another person.

Two of the more horrible results of our nosediving empathy levels are the growing use of social media by trolls to target people with hate speech and threats, and by extremist groups to target, recruit and radicalise new members.

So how do we get our empathy back?

For longer than we’ve known how to speak, human beings have been telling stories.

Sharing our experiences, person to person, has helped us to imagine and understand one another’s problems, successes and feelings, and made it possible for us to learn from each another, form relationships, build communities, cultures and nations – all the things that make us different from animals living simply on their instincts.

Last weekend I saw writer and performer Inua Ellams host An Evening with an Immigrant. His aim was to “put a human face” on the immigration debate by telling his own story. Here’s a tiny bit of it:

“To support our appeal, all these people I’d worked with wrote letters to the Home Office saying ‘Inua – he’s alright. He’s never stolen anything. Except those little blue pens from Argos, which are technically free anyway, so…'”

Inua told us about his father’s exile from Nigeria after standing up to extremism, the racist abuse and violent threats his family faced in Dublin, the sale of their identities by dodgy ‘immigration lawyers’ when they came to the UK… and the surreal experience of being invited to meet the Queen a week after receiving a deportation notice.

His tale was brave and funny and touching and real and – like all good stories – completely, unmistakably human.

When I left the theatre, I felt better: more connected. And worse: more sad. But mostly I felt frustrated, because that little room was too small for everyone in the UK to have heard his story.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had some way of spreading stories like that to everyone, all over the country, and even the world?
I thought.

Oh wait – we do. We’re just using it for all the wrong things.

5 tips for writing like a human being


If you’re worried your business copy might leave readers thinking they’re the last survivors of a cyborg invasion, try these tactics out in your next blog, ad or article.

1. Use everyday words.

Real experts know their subject so well that they can explain it to anyone – including their Gran. So if you don’t understand your topic, covering up with a load of jargon will only make you look like you’re hiding something.

Instead, ask questions until you get it. THEN start writing, and you’ll find you don’t need the jargon anymore.

2. Be specific.

Instead of flowery descriptions, use relatable details that help the reader imagine the subject, and keep you out of the picture.

For example, “In 1984, Big Brother watches every move Winston Smith makes” says a lot more about the book than “1984 is Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece”, and doesn’t conjure up the same image of the writer smirking at their own cleverness.

That’s just distracting. And a bit gross…

3. Make it personal.

We all like to think of ourselves as individuals – not part of one big, samey blob of humanity whose main function is to walk around buying stuff. Don’t be the person whose writing tells people otherwise.

Talking about your organisation? Use ‘we’. About the reader? Say ‘you’. For groups of people, go for words that sound human and specific – try music fans, book lovers or theatre-goers instead of users or customers.

4. Ask questions.

You already do this when you’re chatting to people – it’s just polite, right?

It’s the same in writing. Including questions you think the reader will be curious about shows that you’re interested in them, and understand their position – which you do, because you’re not a robot.

5. Choose words you’d say out loud..

If in doubt, read it out. Is that how you’d say it to:

Your boss?
Your workmates?
Your friend?
Your Mum?

If not, it’s time to redraft.


The only animal that writes



As far as I know, human beings are the only animals that write. At least on this planet.

We’re also the only animal that reads. So it’s amazing how often business writing fails to connect with readers as people.

So why do writers find it so hard to sound human?

Right now it seems like everyone’s taking the word of organisations they used to trust with not just a pinch, but a whole whole fistful, of salt.

The more their comms staff try to put this right, the worse it seems to get. And that’s largely down to a common tactic used by people who speak or write for organisations in this situation: playing the expert card.

This involves using elaborate language or technical jargon to:

a) Cover up our real meaning when we think people won’t like what we have to say.


b) Make us sound clever when we’re feeling the exact opposite, because we’re struggling to understand our subject.

As professional writers, we can sometimes feel like the captain of the school debating team in the final round of a competition – lumbered with a topic we don’t know much about, a deadline that gives us very little time to prepare, and an argument to make that we suspect might be a bit… well, dodgy.

No one can write well in this situation, so the usual result is the kind of writing that pretty much just says:

‘This is too complicated for you, but that’s okay. You can trust me to sort it out for you because I really do know my onions much better than any other onion-seller. Honest. Here are a load of long words like Amaryllidaceae to prove it.’

Then we leave the office and remember that we’re human beings – just in time to quickly knock off a hilarious and insightful Facebook post or two on the train, have our families in stitches over the dinner table, or entertain our friends with stories about that holiday.

Because we know instinctively that the stories we tell are what feeds our relationships with other people. They’re our best tool for making connections.

But somehow, when we’re in work mode, writing on behalf of someone, or something, other than ourselves, we lose the ability to sound human. 

So what can we do about it?  

The good news is that, if you’re a human yourself, you already know what to do.

But to make it a bit easier to remember when you’ve got a deadline looming and 19 million other things to think about, I’ll put it all in one place in the next post. See you there.

Seen this week: Isy Suttie, the Actual One.


Let’s talk about your ears.

I’m not saying they’re big or anything – I just think we should give them a little focus. Chiefly because they’re often neglected. And not just when you wash.

Let me explain. On Monday I went to see Isy Suttie’s one-woman show based on her new book, The Actual One, and it got me thinking about how great audio storytelling works.

I should say outright that I am a big fan of radio comedy (well, I do make a comedy podcast), and that Suttie is probably the most aurally exciting comedian I’ve come across.

If you’ve seen her live, or heard her radio shows, you’ll already know that she specialises in quirky, personal stories that are peopled by an array of distinctively-voiced characters, and peppered with acoustic songs that are as plot-efficient as they are funny.

Listening to her feels like having your ears tickled did when you were five; giggly, gorgeous, and completely moreish.

After the show, I found this episode of Sound Women, where Suttie talks about her Edinburgh show Pearl and Dave, and the experience of adapting it into a Sony-winning radio pilot.

In the interview, she’s asked if she ever worried the show wouldn’t translate – whether the story might lose something important with the departure of a set and a performer to look at. Her answer is unexpected.

“I didn’t really think about that. I’d always worked quite hard on the [characters’] voices and, if anything, sometimes when I did it as a stage show I used to feel like there wasn’t that much for the audience to look at. In a way, it was always more suited to audio.”

She goes on to talk about one of the biggest strengths of audio storytelling – its capacity for intimacy – and how common it is for creators to drop the ball on exploiting this.

“You don’t ever want the audience at home to feel excluded. When I’m listening to radio comedy, I sometimes feel like ‘Oh, I wasn’t there….’ It can feel like a recording of a past event that you’re listening to, rather than something alive, and I want it to feel alive and intimate, like I’m just talking to that person.”

If you’re working on something that’s designed to be heard – a radio script or a speech – it’s worth bearing this in mind.

As with any sort of content creation, writing great audio is all about working your medium.

What radio enthusiasts love about the channel is that, more than any other, it makes us feel like we’re in a fascinating conversation where we’re the only one being spoken to. It puts us right back in our childhood bedrooms, listening to a story that’s just for us.

Make your content personal and intimate, with plenty of relatable images and lively anecdotes, and you can make every one of your listeners feel like the most important person in the room.

Want to see Isy’s show? Check out her latest tour dates at isysuttie.com.

Who’s watching?


I’ve worked a lot in the theatre. And one of the experiences that has stuck with me happened in a marketing meeting about an unscripted play, early in it’s development.

I asked the director to tell me, as far as possible, what he thought it would be like.

What he described was so abstract and inaccessible that – desperate to find some sort of selling point to work with – I found myself asking: ‘So… what’s in it for the audience?

He looked at me for a moment, annoyed. Then said, ‘To be honest, I don’t particularly care.’

Apparently he was under the impression that this was my problem.

This is surprisingly common. This weekend I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which had just as evidently been made without anyone thinking to ask. ‘Who’s watching?

I got angry.

I could describe all the things that frustrated me about the film – sketchy characterisation, a bewildering array of irrelevant cameos from the director’s celebrity chums, plot strands picked up and abandoned all over the place, dialogue so clumsy and inconsistent it made me bite the inside of my cheek (‘I’ve come to realise there are only two types of people; the beautiful and the ugly. Everyone in between is merely cute’’).

But you didn’t come here to read a review.

Being paid to make something that other people will experience is a privilege.

Professional storytellers should never forget that audiences are the people who pay for them to play for a living  – and that’s not a position most people are ever fortunate enough to be in.

In practice, this means asking yourself ‘Who is this for?’ (and coming up with a better answer than ‘people like me’).

In his book Copy. Righter, Ian Atkinson advises writers to bring demographics to life by creating a ‘pen portrait’ of an imagined audience member.

“Use an invented example; a name, a picture and a description. Think about their likes and dislikes… the way they talk… what interests them and what winds them up. Then write as if you’re talking to them.”

I also like to ask myself three other questions:

  • Why are they here?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they need?

If you can answer these and keep them in mind as you work, you’ll have a pretty good barometer whenever it comes to making a tricky creative decision or getting a project back on track.

As social media makes everyday storytellers of us all, this has become a more important consideration for anyone who wants to avoid winding up their friends and family online.

The brilliant 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook blog looks at what makes some Facebook posts so annoying, and boils the answer down to the same crime that pretentious creatives have been indulging in forever.

A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it, he says, providing this helpful diagram.

Posts that fall into the un-annoying B and C regions are always either:

1) Interesting/Informative


2) Funny/Amusing/Entertaining

What this tells us is that audiences expect this kind of consideration from their friends.Just as in real-life conversations, they consider anything less to be impolite.

As professional creators, we are strangers to most of our audience. Unlike their friends and family, we have no legitimate claim on their patience beyond the value our stories have to offer them.

So if we want to win them over, we need to remember another memorable lesson I learned in the theatre.

Never, ever, turn your back on an audience.

Seen this week: All the Things I Lied About


Katie Bonna got engaged last year. And like a lot of people about to tie the knot, she found herself thinking more about her parents’ marriage.

Revisiting her memories of their relationship, and the lies that ended it, she decided to make a show about her own difficult relationship – with the truth.

So in some ways it’s ironic that what makes this work-in-progress stand out is Bonna’s trademark brand of candour.

Hooking us in with a childhood story of how she once tricked her sister into drinking her pee, she is instantly fun and relatable.

When she moves on to more intimate confidences about the stories her teenage self would tell people she fancied in order to get off with them, her self-deprecating willingness to be vulnerable draws us ever closer.

And by the time she comes to share some more difficult, adult confessions, she has changed us.

If we came into the theatre a group of relative strangers liable to judgement, we’re now a roomful of allies reflecting on our own dishonest histories.

And that, right there, is the brilliance of the piece. At the centre of this story is a writer-performer who recognises the importance of the Everyman (or woman). She understands something all good storytellers must:

That if we come love a character, it will be for their flaws, and not their strengths.

It’s in those weaknesses and imperfections that we find reassurance, and inspiration.

Thank God, we think, that everyone else is just as messed up as I am.

But if they can change, then maybe I can, too.

You can catch the second performance of All the Things I lied About on Sat Feb 6 at the Vault Festival, or hear more from Katie in Episode 1 of the Funny Thing podcast.

Say it with feeling

“Emotions travel five times faster than rational thought.”

I spotted this quote in a BBC article about Facebook Reactions last week. Around the same time, I had a conversation with a journalist whose news team is trying to work out how to boost engagement with their stories on Facebook.

They’re finding that on social platforms – where individuals curate the content of their own media – the stuff that proves most popular with audiences is often very different to what a news editor might choose to run as a lead story.

His team aren’t the first to discover this. As far as I’m aware, cats’ interactions with boxes or vegetables have rarely, if ever, found their way onto the front page of The Times. But they do attract eye-watering volumes of social traffic.

When gaps like this emerge, it’s often a question of empathy. An audience will always engage with the story of a dog being rehabilitated after a car accident far more readily than a figurehead giving a speech about quantitative easing.

This is not because we care about dogs more than the economy.

It’s just that we can relate to the dog’s situation much more quickly than we can form an opinion about whether it’s a good idea for the Bank of England to create more money.

Humans are better at empathy than logic because, thankfully, it’s what we’re designed for. But our finest moments are when our emotional reactions move us to practical thought and action.

Like last September, when a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body after he drowned off the coast of Turkey sparked an outpouring of support for migrants and refugees.

This single image was a far more powerful prompt for widespread action than any newspaper op-ed or parliamentary speech.

Feelings happen to us. Thoughts, we make happen.

And great storytelling uses feeling as a springboard to thought.

I saw this ad from Virgin Media in the cinema last week, and it’s a brilliant example.  It takes an everyday, thought-driven act – researching a topic on a search site – and gives it an emotional story that makes it feel life-changing.

Check it out below. If you’re watching for the first time, have some tissues handy!