What place does empathy have in business writing?

What place does empathy have in business writing?

All the places. All. Of. Them.

If your writing isn’t empathetic to your readers’ needs, you’ve failed. End of story.

Who are you writing for? YOU?

All those bad, waffly, long-winded, not-fit-for purpose documents you see at work? Those are the result of writers writing to satisfy their own needs.

Don’t believe me?  How about these needs writers have:

  • the need to look good in their role
  • the need to come across like they know what they’re doing
  • the need to “do it right”
  • the need to show evidence of enough work
  • the need to sound knowledgeable
  • the need to sound “professional”
  • the need to not sound stupid

See what I mean?

Those are very real drivers, and I believe they are the root cause of most bad business writing.

But. If you switch your focus to your readers’ needs and write for them, not for you, magic happens.

What happens when you think about your readers

I’m talking about the kind of magic that happens when you:

  • Give your readers the bottom line up front, instead of making them look for it.
  • Omit those sections that no one ever reads, but that are there because they’ve always been done like that (or just push them further back, like to the appendices, if you need them there to cover butts).
  • Answer your readers’ questions before you tell them all the stuff you want them to know.
  • Acknowledge the fact that business readers skim-read, and then write to support that behaviour (headings, bullets, tables, white space)

We’ve been lying to ourselves

For such a long time we’ve tried to believe work and emotions are separate. But we do so much work on “soft skills” and emotional intelligence these days. We know those are vital!

We spend millions of dollars building empathetic leaders.

Can we PLEASE bring some of that knowing to our writing at work?

How to develop credibility in your profession

When people find out I teach writing, they assume it’s creative writing. Novels, stories, poetry. (Except that one dude who thought I teach handwriting. Weirdo.)

And I can teach those things. I have a master’s degree in creative writing. But without being a hugely successful published author, I don’t feel the same credibility there as I do with my business writing.  Creative writing is not my specialty. Also, I’ve always been hyper-sensitive about NOT being one of the those who can’t, teach. Nope, not me. I can, I do, and I teach.

When you want to make a go of something

I had a young man approach me recently. He wants to become a copywriter. He’s been studying media arts, and that particular course really grabbed him.

He asked me how he could get into the industry, and he sent me his ‘portfolio’.

His portfolio consisted of exactly 3 pieces of work. Pieces he had done as assignments in his course. Two of the three were one sentence long – visual print ads for which he’d written the copy.


You need to do the work, buddy.

We met. I think he was hoping I’d just give him a job. But, a) I don’t hire copywriters, and b) not a chance. I repeat: one sentence long.

I do appreciate people taking some initiative, so I met him to get a feel for the kind of guy he is and to give him some advice.

I’ll give you the same advice I gave him.

You. Have to. Do. The THING.

If you want credibility in any profession, you have to DO IT. If you want to develop credibility as a writer, you have to WRITE. It’s a long game. You can’t expect fast results (which I think he was hoping for). You also can’t necessarily expect to get paid for it.

I spent about 7 years writing, editing, and proofreading FOR FREE before I started charging for my services. Before that, I’d spent years publishing and entering writing competitions. After all that, if someone wanted evidence of the writing I’d done, it was easy. I could turn around and pull up evidence in any direction I looked. I had a publishing profile and a huge portfolio of business and academic writing.

I’m NOT suggesting that the only way to develop credibility in your profession is to work for free. I had jobs during that entire period. I was teaching, and writing in my job, and I took other opportunities to produce work when they came up. I helped people. I developed my skill and my reputation.


You want to be known as a teacher? Teach. Give free classes in your community.

You want to be known as an artist? Get your art out there. At charity auctions and other events where you can contribute work and get your name out there.

You want to be known as an advocate? Advocate. Support people to navigate systems.

You want to be known in governance? Get on boards. Start with small, local. Work your way up.

What do you want to develop credibility in?

Are you doing it?

How to write a cover letter

This is a question people ask me often, so here’s my advice. Especially since a couple of weeks ago I told you how to quit *insert cheesy grin here*.

Is it needed?

Before you start stressing over the cover letter, you need to find out if one is actually needed. If the job ad specifically says, Submit your CV with cover letter here, then yes, you need one. If it doesn’t, you might be able to assume they’re not interested in cover letters.

You are also allowed to actually call a human and ask them.

‘Hi Donna, my name is Shelly Davies. I’m just wondering if a cover letter is needed with my application for the unicorn trainer position? Thank you! Is there anything else you think I should know? Awesome. You have a great day.’

Some recruiters will put A LOT of weight on the cover letter – maybe even more than the CV. Others never even read that cover letter you spent three hours writing and ran past a test audience of 23 poor friends.

So, find out if it’s needed. If not, your cover letter can say exactly:

Hi there

Please find attached my CV in application for the position of Unicorn Trainer.



What does it need to accomplish for you?

If you’ve established that a cover letter is needed, you need to decide what you want it to do for you.

A cover letter can’t be everything. Your CV has a job and the cover letter has a job. Make sure you’re clear on which is doing what.  Don’t make your cover letter a differently formatted CV.

Does it need to make you stand out? Does it need to reinforce to them that you meet all their criteria? Does it need to show personality? Does it need to show that you have added value above what they’re looking for? Decide which of those is your focus before you start writing.  It can’t do all of those things!

The recruiter is BUSY

They will go through those cover letters with military precision and they will cull HARD. If you write a novel, you’re effectively creating more work for that recruiter.

Don’t make them work. Make it easy for them.

How? Use headings. Use bullets. Be concise. They will be skim reading. Paragraphs, stories, narratives, novels – these things are hard to skim read.

Professional is PERSONAL

Most of us think that to sound professional we need to use a formal voice. That’s utter bullshit.

To sound professional, show who you are confidently and appropriately. Speak to your reader. Use 1st and 2nd person. It’s a conversation. The more formal the voice you use, the colder and more clinical and more bland the letter is.

Bland doesn’t get you a job.


Basically? Errors are a turn-off. Use Grammarly. Use the Hemingway Editor. Use your Great Aunt. But don’t send a cover letter with errors. At the very least, read it out loud.

Think visual

Use a simple, clean, modern sans serif font. Make sure there’s enough line spacing and clear paragraph breaks. All of these things help your busy busy reader to skim read and get a good, strong, confident, professional opinion of you.

Now go. Be a unicorn trainer!