Do I want Empathy or Sympathy in my Storytelling?



Same thing right?

Well no, not even close. And understanding the difference between these two words and ideas is what will separate your storytelling from blah to Yeah!

When talking story, the words empathy and sympathy come up often.  Most entrepreneurs and businesses use the words empathy and sympathy incorrectly and many times interchangeably (which is also incorrect.)

As we go out and spread the idea of the importance of story in business, we find that a many people understand the idea that story in itself makes an emotional connection and therefore makes the audience or the listener empathetic to the story teller or the story itself.

However, just as many people like to say that a story makes them sympathetic to the storyteller or the story.  While this could be true, what we’re really after in every story we tell is to create an emotional connection with our audience based on empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy?



Subtle change in letters but the meaning and end result is huge.

So WHY is this relevant anyway?  Glad you finally asked!

In any given story there’s actually two stories happening simultaneously, in parallel!

Say what?

That’s right.  During any story that’s being heard, seen, or experienced there’s actually two stories happening at the same time.

The “first” story is the obvious story. The explicit story. The story we hear.  The story that someone is telling.

In a cinematic story it’s the movie that’s happening.  For example, one of my favorite movies is Tommy Boy starring Chris Farley.  That movie opens up with Tommy at college, partying hard, finally graduating, heading back to his hometown where he tries to live up to the larger than life reputation of his dad and the family biz…etc.  That’s the obvious story.

The “second” story is what I’ll call the empathy story or mirror story.

When we’re in the audience (put yourself in this position now), we are constantly trying to figure out how WE fit into that story. How it relates to our lives.  In the empathy story everyone is interpreting the story via their own filter and their own worldview. In a movie theater of 50 people watching Tommy Boy there is only one “first story” but there are 50 “empathy” or secondary stories happening simultaneously.

Back to our Tommy Boy example as I’m watching Tommy Boy the second the movie starts I’m immediately trying to make meaning of the story and relate to Tommy so I can understand what’s going on.

In the opening of the movie we see Tommy partying partying, crashing through the table, being kind of fat, dumb, drunk and stupid.  That’s the obvious story.  But I’m also thinking to myself, “hey, I went to college.  I had buddies that we got crazy with. I remember partying the night before my graduation ceremony – man was I hungover. And that grad ceremony at the Big House in Ann Arbor — ah… UM football games in the fall — was HOT. I was so sweaty and nauseous, man my parents must have been pissed.  If my son does that I’ll….” And so on. That’s how the brain works.

Now my experience wasn’t exactly like Tommy’s but I was in a fraternity. We had some good times and I went to college, like just about everyone else I know.  

There is enough human universality in the story of Tommy Boy it that as I’m experiencing this story I can say, “You know what?  Tommy’s a lot like me in a lot of ways. Not every way but in some ways.  Yeah, he’s like me…”

As that story progresses Tommy has this very close relationship with his father and whether or not you had a close relationship with your father, a distant relationship with your father,  or something in between, what’s happening in the audience’s mind is an internal conversation that says, “Hey my relationship’s a lot like that with my dad. I can relate to what Tommy is going through. He’s like me.

Or you might be on a different spectrum where you’re like, “My dad was never like that. Man, I wish I had a dad like Tommy. He’s like me.” or “…my father passed away too early from a heart attack. He’s like mine…” or a billion other possibilities of how we might relate to this scene.

In any story, not just the movies we’re constantly creating these parallel stories, in the amount of time it takes for us to take a breath. It all happens so quickly and is unconscious. I know you’re not sitting in your seat asking yourself, “Is he like me?”. It just happens. Like blinking your eyes.

And it’s these parallel stories, these second stories that create empathy (not sympathy) that have the real story power.  

And this is the goal for our stories to ultimately drive empathy in our audience so that we can build an emotional connection and in a business story move our prospects and customers to action.

It has been scientifically proven that when we feel empathy our brain releases a chemical called cortisol and that cortisol focuses our attention.

Cortisol commands,  “Pay attention to what you’re experiencing!”

The second chemical that is released in the brain is oxytocin. Oxytocin is a chemical that is associated with care, connection, and empathy and the more oxytocin that you release the more empathy you will feel. Studies have proven that the amount of oxytocin released in your brain can actually predict your willingness to buy and connect with a brand!

Let’s hop back to those parallel stories that are happening. It’s very important that we understand that when a story starts instantly the audience is trying to figure out what’s happening so that they can go into this state called empathy.  It’s a natural, hardwired mission our brain is set on figuring out.

One of my favorite Story experts, Robert McKee loves to ask “… and for whom is the audience rooting for??”  He let’s hang out there with a pregnant pause then exclaims, “Themselves!!  The answer is themselves!!”

What McKee means by this is the audience is always trying to understand what’s going on  – from the second you start your story.  Whether this is a movie, a business story, a sales story, a brand story, your personal story, it doesn’t matter.

Any audience will always recognize shared humanity and this is the ultimate goal of creating empathy in the stories we tell about ourselves and our businesses.

At the end of the day empathy lets people know that your company, brand, product, you, etc is HUMAN, just like you. JUST LIKE ME. Just like good ole Tommy Boy.

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