If part of your work is communicating with donors, your job might be getting harder.
Is our world moving too fast for empathy? We’ve heard that human attention spans are now shorter than those of goldfish. We know more people are reading online, and fewer are reading on paper. We have also known that there is a pattern to how people read – Siegfried Vögele showed us that decades ago.
But I recently read (yes, online) a resurfaced article from 2018 that draws a line between our increasingly fractured attention and our sense of empathy.
Let’s step back a little. As the article notes, when humans became literate, our brains changed. We needed to understand more than basic numbers. We needed to understand ideas. And things not right under our eyes. Over time, our brains adapted.
The author of the article, Maryanne Wolf, puts it this way:
My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.
But these “deep reading” skills are losing now to speed.
With the amount of information we’re bombarded with daily, we feel forced to keep up by reading quickly. We need to digest much more information, much faster now.
The brains that adapted for deep reading are now adapting again. And that change could lessen our ability to empathize.
As we skim in the rush to take in as much information as possible, the skills that come with deep reading are being lost. “…we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.”
We need those deeper processes to stimulate empathy.
The medium is also part of the message. On paper, it’s easy to go back, to reread a section that you want to understand better. You are also holding something tangible in your hands – and that matters. Our sense of touch is absolutely connected to our ability to feel for others.
So what are you to do?
First, don’t give up on direct mail. More than ever now, the experience of reading something you hold in your hand is important. The process of seeing an envelope, opening it, handling it is important to giving. Print may, quite literally, give weight to our words.
But be aware of how people tend to look at what you write. Make it easy. How? Large enough type (14 is the new 12). Serif fonts. Short paragraphs. Simple sentences. Indented paragraphs.
Use subheads when needed to help people find their way through.
And write with emotion. Tell a story. Wake up the deep reading brain with a treat we’re built to want: a story.
There’s brain chemistry at work when you’re offered a story. Stories stimulate attention (cortisol), pleasure (dopamine) then action (Oxytocin). Stories satisfy our pattern-seeking brains – our urge to make order out of chaos. And character-driven stories allow us to feel empathy and act on it.
Thankfully, we’re still rewarded (chemically speaking) for empathy. Feeling for others makes us feel good, too. That’s because we become the character in the story – we feel what they feel.
That’s why an appeal that doesn’t have the ending to the story – that leaves the ending up to the reader – is more likely to get responses. We’ll feel pulled to tie that thing up – but the way to do it is to give.
And that’s why thank you letters and newsletters can share the ending – so long as the donor is part of that ending. It feels good to be thanked. We like to know we’re good people. Ask someone to do you a small favor – and they’re more likely to do a larger one. So don’t skimp on gratitude.
Use images that work. One great image can tell a whole story itself!
Maryanne Wolf suggests: “We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums.”
So might I suggest that along with writing for the best response, you also practice deep reading yourself? Pick up a novel. Get lost in it. Think a lot.
Slow down, and make room for empathy.