Knowing Your Audience - The Power of Empathy

August 11, 2023

Why does Laughter On Call include empathy in our laughter training? Because it falls exactly in line with something every comedian relies on to do their best work. Knowing your audience. When you know your audience and can figure out how to relate to them, to empathize with their experience, you are that much more likely to get laughs. I recall landing in Guam early in my comedy career. I got off the plane and made a mad dash to a news stand. I scanned the local paper for the challenges of the day for relevant material. Opening that night with a few bits written specifically for them they immediately felt seen and heard. I empathized with their current events which immediately made them feel they could trust me. They laughed together and everyone relaxed. They also appreciated that I took the time to see them not as generic "comedy audience," but as a distinct community.

I was reminded of the relevance of empathy in business last week. We had the opportunity to head to Chicago and kick off an all-day meeting for Pro Em, a national event services company. We didn’t have a lot of time together so after a quick warm up where we got everyone energized, introduced to each other and laughing, I presented some of the key tools we’d be focusing on in the next 90 minutes. We always start with active listening which is a great set up for talking about a somewhat unsung business hero, empathy.

“What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?” I asked.

CEO Amir Glogau shot his hand up. I love it when leaders are game.

“Brene Brown talks about this. Empathy is I feel what you are feeling. I feel you.”

“Exactly right,” I said. It's being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, by relating to it, not just observing it. Sympathy is observational, in a “that must be hard for you,” way.

As Ms. Brown is quick to point out, sympathy actually has the opposite effect of creating human connection, it puts distance between us. That’s when I remembered the delightful cartoon she posted illustrating this difference. Although comedy is not her angle, Ms. Brown definitely has a sense of humor. And her famous enthusiasm for leading with vulnerability, often a great source of comedy, put her on the map.

Clearly, comedians are not the only ones who understand the power of “knowing your audience,” and empathizing with them for creating trust that pays off. According to Harvard Business Review, “Workers at companies where trust is high report 106% greater energy in the office, 74% lower stress levels, 76% greater engagement, and 50% more productivity than their peers at low-trust businesses.” With these kind of statistics, taking the time to listen to your people and do a bit of reflecting on how you relate personally, to empathize rather than sympathize with them, not only feels good, it has undeniable R.O.I.