Empathy mapping: How to get inside your reader's head

Empathy mapping: cartoon of map with the word 'empathy' written on it

‘Who is my reader?’

It’s the first question any professional writer asks herself - or her client - before she sits down to write.

From there, a series of questions follows. Questions like:

  • What’s my reader’s name? (It’s always a good idea to have a single, named reader in mind).

  • How old is she? What does she do for a living? What does she do in her spare time?

  • What’s going on with her right now? What are her hopes and dreams? What keeps her awake at night?

  • What does she know about my topic? What doesn’t she know? What objections might she have to my message?

  • Above all, what do I want her to do after reading? And how can I use what I know about her to persuade her to do it?

Knowing the answers to questions like these will help you focus your words on addressing her needs.

Result? A more compelling bunch of words. And a better chance of turning what you want to say into something she desperately wants to hear (and act on).

Digging a bit deeper

But here’s a way to dig even deeper into your reader’s psyche: empathy mapping.

Empathy mapping was invented by a business consultant as a way to gather insights into customers. If you’re a writer, it’s a great technique for getting inside your reader’s head and experiencing the world as they do.

The idea of empathy mapping is to paint a picture of what a typical day looks and feels like for your reader. What they’re thinking and feeling and saying. What other messages they’re hearing.

I’ve helped clients use empathy maps in a variety of ways - for example to:

  • Brainstorm blog content that readers will love

  • Craft sales messages and elevator pitches that hit the right note

  • Plan reports and decide what information the reader wants and needs

  • Communicate a difficult message to employees (redundancies, for example).

How to create an empathy map

To create an empathy map, you’ll need about 30 minutes and a pen and paper.

First, draw a picture of your reader in the centre of the page (don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be an artistic masterpiece).

Around that picture, divide the page into four sections, labelling each one as follows: ‘Thinks/Feels’, ‘Sees’, ‘Says/Does’ and ‘Hears’. At the bottom of the page, draw two sections, labelled ‘Pains’ and ‘Gains’.

Then start filling in your page, section by section, documenting how your reader thinks, feels etc. In doing so, use what you know of your reader from research and maybe a little bit of gut instinct.

For example, if your reader’s a customer, what have they told you in conversations or via more formal feedback?

If they’re an employee, what responses are you seeing in the employee survey? What are they saying to each other on Yammer? What are you hearing around the water cooler?

If they’re a potential buyer of your next online course, what questions are they asking on your blog? What are they saying in reviews of your competitors’ courses? Or Amazon reviews of books on similar topics?

The idea is to capture everything you know about your customer so you can make your messages as appealing as possible.

Take a look at this video, where I demonstrate empathy mapping in action, using it to paint a picture of a fashion-conscious mum:

I’m neither a mum nor particularly fashion savvy, but creating the empathy map really helped me put myself in the shoes of a completely different person. Try it!