Updated October 2023

There's a lot out there on why empathy is important in content marketing and PR, and some tactics on how to figure out what you need to be empathetic about, but one thing that isn't getting enough attention to me is the craft of conveying empathy. You can have all the insights and personae and good intentions you want, but all the effort will fail if you don't strike the right tone.

Here's a recent example. Clothing retailer & Other Stories' internal inventory list showed a product with a name including the N-word. When it was discovered and made public, the company issued a statement and granted interviews.

Mistakes were made.

Instead of showing empathy and contrition, the company's comments come off as tone-deaf. Poor word choices make the message weak and the intent and credibility questionable. Let's take a closer look at how words set the right (or wrong) tone.

Tone Mistake #1: Qualifying statements

Let's start with the official statement:

"We take the use of racially inappropriate language extremely seriously."

OK so far.

"Although the word was never printed on an actual product,"

<sound of screeching brakes followed by a crash>

That tone-deaf preamble says, "well, it could have been worse". And it could have been, but that's not the point. The qualifying statement creates a tone -- a sense -- that the company lacks the empathy to understand the impact of the issue. Because some things are just not OK no matter where they appear. The N-word is, of course, one of those things. It should never have been used anywhere. H&M and & Other Stories don't get a pass because the term was *only* used internally. No! That simply shows how deeply institutionalized racism is at the company. Because it's not like only one person saw that. Many people saw it. And they let it ride. Those 10 words dilute the impact of any of the paragraphs that follow, including consequences for the action (suspension of some employees), an internal investigation and DEI commitments. Now that the lack of accountability and understanding is out in the light, we aren't in a frame of mind to trust what follows.

Your Takeaway: Skip the qualifying statements, which weaken your message and dilute your authority. It's a more deft application of "yeah, but" and it's an immediate flag. Do a revision pass specifically to look for conditional or qualifying language that diminishes your credibility. Learn more ways to make your writing stronger.

But wait! There's more.

Tone Mistake #2: Auxiliary verbs & conditional language

In an interview with CNN Business about the obscenity, Annie Wu, H&M's global head of inclusion and diversity, said:

"Personally, I am super angry and ashamed that something like this could even happen. I would want to see them terminated because there’s no excuse for it.”

I'll preface this by admitting that I'm a 58-year-old who may be having a "get off my lawn / OK, Boomer" moment, but the tone here strikes my ears as flippant and again, unaccountable. Here's why:

  • Super: When I read "super angry and ashamed" it sounded frivolous and casual. My immediate response was that she really isn't pissed or repentant. She's the head of DEI for the company, so I expect a more forceful statement.
  • Could/Would: In some cases like this is one, these words (the fancy term is "auxiliary verbs") signal disbelief and wishful thinking and seed doubt. "Could even happen" suggests that she didn't realize the company had a problem with racist language, which is impossible because Ms. Wu was hired after H&M's "coolest monkey in the jungle" insult a few years ago. "Would like to see them terminated" is wishy-washy. As the head of DEI, she presumably has a say in the company's policies and consequences. If she wants them fired, a better word approach would be "I've recommended that they're fired and am reviewing our HR policies around enforcement and consequences."

I will give her credit for using "angry" and "ashamed", two words that are strong and clear. But they're softened by the other word choice gaffes.

Your Takeaway: Edit out should, would and could as much as possible to strengthen impact and integrity, and set a more forthright tone. I know there are times when Legal will tell you you have to use these words, and in those cases you probably do. But any other time, see if you can do without them. See why "will" is also a no-go most of the time.

Word choice is a key element of voice and tone (sentence fluency is the other). You're not going to be able to show authentic empathy if you choose words that telegraph something else. This is another reason revision is your friend. Revise your writing carefully to make sure your words accurately represent your empathy.

3 more articles on empathy and voice:

  1. Expert insights on empathy from Content Marketing World
  2. The elements of voice
  3. How to write in the right voice