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Let’s look at the essential soft skill that helps you relate to your readers and your clients

This post was written by TCCS member, Beth Micklethwaite


Late last year, someone asked me to name the most important skill a good copywriter needs. My answer surprised me.

  • It wasn’t about being a wordsmith or a grammar geek.
  • It wasn’t about having a wide vocabulary.
  • It wasn’t about being able to make a dangling modifier behave itself again.

My answer had nothing to do with wielding words effectively.

Because I believe the most important skill a copywriter needs is empathy – the soft skill of making a connection with another person.


What are soft skills?

Soft skills aren’t technical or job-related. But they certainly help you succeed in your career.

If you want to be an accountant, you need well-developed numeracy skills, a relevant degree, and accreditation to one of the profession’s regulatory bodies.

But it’ll be soft skills such as attention to detail, organisation, discretion, and communication that will help you get ahead of your peers.

The same is true in copywriting.

A writer should understand language conventions, communicate clearly, and adapt their writing style and tone to suit the purpose and their intended audience.

But being good with words isn’t enough to make you a successful copywriter.

Copywriters also need various soft skills to succeed.


What’s empathy and why do copywriters need it?

Empathy, as you probably know, means sharing someone else’s feelings and experiencing the world as it is for them. Empathy allows us to understand our audience.

We’re not writing into thin air; we’re writing to a reader.

A person.
An actual human being.
(Not sure which humans you’re writing for? Download the target audience worksheet to help define your audience.)

Empathy helps us grasp the reader’s motivations, frustrations, fears, and desires.

It lets us imagine someone else’s life.

And that’s how we write copy that builds a bridge between our clients and their ideal customers.

“Without empathy, you can’t get into your client’s head, nor can you get into their customers’ heads.” – Sandra Muller

As a healthcare writer, empathy is particularly important to me.

If someone is searching for symptoms of an illness or trying to find treatment options, they’re probably stressed about their health. My job is to inform, reassure, and empower them by taking the best medical advice on that topic and translating it into plain English.

I help them understand what might be happening in their body and what they should do next (which is usually to see the medical professional I’m writing for).


Why empathy matters to Australian audience right now

Health consumers aren’t the only people in a heightened state of anxiety right now. Many Australians have been doing it tough recently, as a quick recap of recent months shows.

  • July 2019: The Murray-Darling basin was in the worst drought in recorded history, depriving communities of water and affecting Australia’s overall economy and food security.
  • January 2020: Ten million hectares of Australia (about the size of South Korea) were burning as raging bushfires destroyed nearly 3,000 homes, killed at least 34 people and an estimated 1 billion animals, and made the air hazardous to breathe even far away from the fires.
  • February 2020: Parts of Queensland and NSW were flooded when more rain fell in just a few days than in the entire previous year.
  • March 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic hit, cases and deaths began to rise, borders were closed, social distancing measures began, and life as we knew it was put on hold.

Next time you’re writing to an Australian audience, think about how these traumatic experiences may have affected their lives. Some of your readers have been knocked down many times over, and are struggling to get up again.

In this climate, brands that pump out their usual message as if nothing has changed risk being perceived as insensitive and out of touch with their audience.

As a copywriter, you need to speak to people using words that reflect where they’re at right now. You need to show you understand what it’s like for them.

That’s showing empathy.

This ability to imagine and understand what your audience is going through, especially at a difficult time, and to express this in your copy is what makes your writing stand out. That’s why empathy is an essential soft skill for copywriters.


What other soft skills do copywriter need?

Now that we have empathy covered, what other personal qualities make a good copywriter? I asked the marvellous members of The Clever Copywriting Community for their insight.

Here’s their list of the vital attributes every good copywriter needs:

  • Wit
  • Compassion
  • Tolerance
  • Curiosity
  • Observation
  • Mental dexterity
  • Emotional insight.

Editor note: They need endless patience too.

Gaining and retaining clients is as much about the soft skills as the hard ones. Successful freelance copywriters embody certain personal qualities such as:

  • Diplomacy
  • Patience
  • Negotiation skills.

Many of us wouldn’t be here without the perseverance and determination needed to start a freelance copywriting business in the first place

We also need to be active listeners and be able to interpret the client’s needs, which may not be clearly expressed. Often we’re helping clients identify what they really need. (Spoiler: It’s not always what they initially ask for.)

Thanks to our soft skills, we sometimes spot gems or opportunities our clients can’t see themselves because they’re too close to the work.


How can you develop soft skills for copywriting?

If you’re keen to develop your soft skills to improve your copywriting, you could try:

  • Connecting with the people you encounter each day. Have a (socially-distanced) chat with your neighbours, the guy who scans your groceries, or other parents at school drop-off. Enjoy a heart-to-heart with a close friend. Yes, it’s a bit tricky during #isolife. But it’s arguably more important than ever to deepen our relationships by asking probing questions and offering loving support
  • Reading a good novel. It’s one of the best and most enjoyable ways to enter someone else’s experience of life
  • Creating a marketing persona. It helps you visualise who’s reading your words before you start writing
  • Imagining yourself as a member of your target audience. What information are you hungry for? What’s confusing you? What pain points are you experiencing? Respond to those needs with your writing
  • Completing a course. Look for useful soft skills such as negotiation skills or assertiveness
  • Increasing your curiosity. Pretend you’re two again and constantly ask, “Why?”
  • Keeping significant events in mind. Remember the impact of recent droughts, floods, and fires, especially when writing to rural Australians.


Working out which skills you need to develop

Look back over your recent work and ask yourself some questions.

What soft skills can you see in your writing?

Which ones did you use when working with that client?

Which ones do you struggle with?

And most importantly, which soft skills will you work on? (And how will you do it?)


Over to you

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About Beth

After freelancing for a few years, Beth Micklethwaite is now an in-house copywriter at Splice Marketing, a Brisbane-based agency that specialises in the health and medical sector.