Let Empathy Guide Your COVID-19 Content Creation

For small business owners, freelancers and content creators of all stripes, the coronavirus outbreak has brought about fast change and high anxiety in addition to the general uncertainty we’re all feeling as humans. We’re being forced to make executive decisions to keep our businesses intact, and our jobs have become a question of how to support each other with a completely new set of logistical restrictions, changing industry dynamics and tighter budgets. While I’m fortunate to even be able to work from home, I’ve spent more time at my computer troubleshooting, salvaging client work and stressing during this first week than I have in months.

In the frantic storm of content we’re creating and consuming, efficiency is compassion. Everybody’s situation is changing and we’re all under a lot of stress, making sure our bills are paid and there’s enough food in the pantry on top of everything else. Confined to our computers, we rely on technology to get our daily news, stay in touch with friends and family, make sales, deliver whatever it is that we do and manage to be entertained. We’re all Facebook’d out, but our messaging and communication are more critical than ever. 

As we pull back to adjust our strategies and possibly hone in on some new opportunities that will get us closer to our passion and purpose, it’s imperative that we stay mindful of what others are going through and just be human. In my humble opinion as a lifelong writer and empath with a communication minor that I never thought I’d find a use for, the best things you can do right now are to:

  • Take some time to check in on your existing community
  • Broadcast what you’ve got in spades and make yourself available
  • Check your privilege and speak to your entire audience, not just the low-risk majority
  • Be unafraid to ask for what you need in specific terms 
  • Ask others how you can help them before sharing your offerings 

Here are a few more thoughts on how to step up in a changing content climate and create something truly helpful (and therefore valuable) rather than adding to the noise:

Listen First

Some have shared the sentiment that this is a great time to re-focus and nourish the relationships and passions that matter most to us, but for an entrepreneur, that means some of those relationships need to be paying clients. I’ve absolutely felt the pressure to throw some graphics together, announce my webinar and figure out what I’m going to say in the meantime. I’ve also realized that is not how I like to do things and it would probably be a disaster

I’ve found great value in slowing down to write some heartfelt emails to people I look up to and admire, to see how they’re doing, what’s changing for them, and if there’s anything I can do to help. I’m listening for content needs, but also literally anything else they might need from me. I believe the best content we create right now will be inspired by real-world human interactions. To navigate this uncharted territory and forge ahead, our content needs to be intentional and empathetic. 

If you’re too overwhelmed to reach out, that’s okay too. Sometimes listening means slowing down and listening to ourselves. Write down your own feelings and observations while you’re housebound, as these Hubei residents did, to work through your own situation. Your story might be helpful to someone else later on, but at the very least, it will be therapeutic for you in this moment. 

Take Your Finger Off the Pain Point

During a marketing intake, it usually takes some brainstorming to come up with a substantial list of pains and fears to respond to. Right now everything has been shaken up and pain and fear are in abundance: there are big pains and fears affecting specific groups of people, but there are little pains and fears coming out that no one could have predicted. The last thing you want to do is add to the panic or appear to be taking advantage of a bad situation. 

As a person who feels other people’s feelings, I’m always thinking about how the person on the other end will be affected by what I say: how they would respond if I said this in a face-to-face conversation. Whatever you’re promoting right now, make sure you are responding to real feelings your audience is experiencing rather than uncovering pain and fear they didn’t know they had. Think of your copy as a speech you’re giving from a stage, where you take a responsible, compassionate tone and offer solutions but avoid self-promotion.

Come from a Place of Service

What has really struck me, after years of watching the social justice movement debate what kinds of speech really spark action—is that the line between words and actions seems to be blurring. I’ve always been fascinated by “speech acts,” or things that you accomplish just by saying some words in the right place, the right time, the right way. An apology. A command. A curse. Creating content is something we do, a skill that we hone, and it can be influential. 

Especially now, it’s time to start introducing ourselves instead of our services and then ask “How can I help you?” This is essentially the theory behind personal branding, and I love that it makes for a ton of flexibility to dive into what you love to do, then work with the people who are interested to work out offerings that make sense. Right now it might be skill sharing, cross-promotion, referrals, resources, tips on using tools and software, anything. 

I’m not condoning working for free by any means; I’m suggesting that we set money aside as the “most important thing” until this is over so we can help each other in the ways that will make a difference. We’ll form relationships that will last long after the money comes back. I think the people who step up to volunteer right now will definitely be remembered and rewarded.

One final thought I’ll leave you with is something positive I’ve noticed because of the pandemic: how our relationship to the unknown is changing. “The Unknown” has long been one of our largest fears as a species, up there with public speaking and heights, but the rapid changes in technology and communication since the turn of the millennium have helped us learn to embrace change as a society. I think we were more prepared for this than we would have been just ten years ago. We’re changing jobs and careers more often than we ever have, and our favorite apps get updated more and more frequently. We’re less afraid of change, and therefore more free to chase our goals.

Kenneth Burke said “in the spontaneous unfoldings of history, the imaginative expression o fa trend precedes its conceptual-critical counterpart.” (Hello, communication minor.) I think we’re starting to make some really innovative leaps in art, design, storytelling, communication, the humanities, etc. because we’re realizing that we don’t have to completely understand something before we start problem-solving. As things move faster and faster, creativity becomes more valuable and old, tired power structures take a backseat. We’re learning that even unexpected change can have revolutionary results.


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