Empathy Index: “My” problem versus “Yours”

Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, got into hot water in July for hiking service rates, up to 60% in some cases, without any warning or explanation to his customers. The move has customers and casual observers alike questioning Hastings’ empathy. So this week Hastings sent this explanation to Netflix’s 24 million customers.

You don’t have to be a Netflix subscriber (which I confess I am, in the interest of full disclosure) to understand why this email hasn’t solved Hastings’ PR problem. In fact, you don’t even have to read the full content of the email. The proof is in the pronouns. Let me show you what I mean:

Notice the number of times Hastings uses the words I, Me, My, Our, and Us to refer to himself and his company’s needs. Add to that the number of times he uses vague and impersonal language to refer to his customers as Many, Members, Those, and Their. Now compare that to the number of times when he talks directly to his customer using the power words You and Your.

In Business Writing, we call this the Empathy Index, the ratio of how often you focus on yourself and your needs versus how often you focus on the needs and concerns of your reader. So what do Hastings’ pronouns tell us?

  • He refers to himself and his company 48 times
  • He refers to the customer in vague impersonal pronouns 8 times
  • He speaks directly to the customer a mere 10 times, 4 of which are in the paragraph discussing credit card charges.
  • There are 5 consecutive paragraphs when he doesn’t address the customer directly.
  • There are 3 consecutive paragraphs when he doesn’t refer to the customer at all.

It doesn’t take a math genius to understand what these ratios suggest. The customer is not Reed Hastings’ first priority.

So how can you avoid making the same mistake?

  • Employ your empathy by thinking about your reader’s needs, and putting them first before you start writing. Rather than talking about your market strategy, maybe focus on its affects and benefits to the customer.
  • Connect with your reader by addressing them directly whenever possible, even when you are writing to many. Wouldn’t you rather read about “you” and “your needs” rather than “them” and “theirs?”
  • Check your own Empathy Index as part of your proofreading process. If you have large sections of writing where you’re not addressing the reader or their needs, consider cutting them. You are likely covering ground that is more important to you than to them.

Pronouns are small words, but big indicators of your empathy. If your language can reflect how genuinely you’ve considered your reader and their needs, it’s very likely your reader, client, customer, boss or subscriber will too.