Empathetic Imaging – How To Better Understand Others

Will Greenblatt

February 21, 2022

As entrepreneurs, we are always told to “understand your customers”, “get inside their heads”, “get a PhD in your market’s problems”, and many other cliches that are nonetheless very important to remember. The reason for this is obvious: if you know what your market needs, you can make or do it for them, and they give you money. Simple right?

Not exactly. First of all, while extremely valuable, it can be difficult to conduct accurate market research (what the Lean Startup calls Customer Development), even with the necessary resources, because people don’t always know what they want. Henry Ford’s famous quote sums it up “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” Furthermore, often we as founders are biased towards our original hypotheses, so that we ask questions that are unintentionally slanted towards a certain answer, cutting off all sorts of avenues towards the truly valuable thing people are missing. Finally, founders tend to focus on quantitative problems rather than qualitative problems, because they are easier to measure, but ultimately, we must remember that people are emotional animals, and much of our decision making (like whether to buy something or invest in a startup) is based on gut feelings rather than facts. 

So, how do you improve your emotional intelligence about other people’s problems? How can you stay open and curious so as to limit bias in your research? And how can you get underneath the answers that you get from your customers and really speak to them in a way that gets their emotions activated?

One way, which is totally free, takes only 5 minutes and you can do all by yourself, is an acting exercise I call EMPATHETIC IMAGING, and I can’t recommend it enough. I do it with all my advanced clients, once we deal with their physical and vocal habits and cover fundamental performance techniques. I sit them down, get them relaxed with a simple mindful breathing exercise and ask them to imagine their ideal customer (obviously, it helps to have an avatar of this target market, someone with a name, age, location, gender etc.). Then I ask them a series of very specific and seemingly random questions, such as:

  • What kind of bed do they wake up in? With whom? Alone?
  • What does their room look like? How is it furnished? What do they see outside their window?
  • What’s the first thing they do once they’re up? What does their morning routine consist of? How do they feel about being awake? Are they a night owl or morning lark?
  • What do they eat for breakfast? With whom? Alone? DO they eat?
  • What kind of kitchen do they have? In what kind of house? In what neighbourhood? Are they satisfied with all of it?

To do this exercise, follow these steps:

  1. Copy & paste the questions above, and add to them until you can’t think of any more or get bored, whichever comes first (remember, keep them specific and emotional
  2. Read them out loud and record yourself, on an app on your phone, leaving long pauses
  3. Sit in a chair, close your eyes, and breathe to calm yourself and get into a different headspace
  4. Play the recording, and answer the questions, out loud, with your eyes closed really trying to imagine the answers visually and viscerally
  5. If all the above is too much, just do step 1 and then TYPE your answers out in a Word doc

Now, these questions may appear trivial, or unknowable; and the point is not necessarily to be “right.” After all, some of your customers may be night owls, others morning larks. Some may eat breakfast, while others don’t. You may even think “how the hell should I know?” or “why should I care?”

What this exercise does, better than anything else I know, is activate your empathy. The more information we have about someone, the easier it is to feel empathy for them as we have a more vivid picture of the lives they live. The more we know about people, the more we care about them. Also, note that these questions are not centred on quantitative data (e.g. “How much do they make a year?”) but qualitative answers, getting at their emotional experiences (e.g. “Are they satisfied with their neighbourhood?”) We are asking about their family, whether they are lonely, what their mood is like, what kind of colours and furniture their house has, etc. 

This gets out of the technical, logic-based research mode we often are in as founders (which is very important, but limiting), and helps us step into an emotionally intelligent way of thinking which you will find has a snowball effect: the more you practice thinking this way, the easier you’ll find it to truly connect and empathize with others. I’ve found that as I practice this work, I can way more often predict people’s emotional reactions to things before they happen, making me a much better public speaker, leader and entrepreneur. It really is amazing how much more successful conversations go when your empathy is turned up to this level, whether those are pitches, sales calls, tough talks with employees, the messaging in your marketing or even conversations with loved ones. Empathy = emotion, which makes people listen, understand and care.

Research has shown us that we are not the logic-based decision machines we assume ourselves to be, either as producers or consumers. Use this exercise with yourself or your team and see the difference it makes! Please like and share if you found this valuable ?

P.S. If you want to improve your pitch fast, check out my Powerful Pitch Bootcamp here!