Beyond Empathy – Would you help your persona out of a burning truck?

Posted 9/27/2015 12:00 AM by Jeff Julian

To begin, I must get something off of my chest.  When I first started in writing, my audience was software developers and I had no problem with empathy.  I understood the developer because I was a developer.   I know how the tech industry changes affect the day-to-day rhythms of the software engineer and how the pressure to be a high performer causes a daily battle within yourself.  I was my target persona and most of my friends were as well. 

Once I began to see our customers and influencers were becoming marketing professionals, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, oh man I have to dumb everything down.  How can I explain this software to a person who is not technical? 

In those few sentences, you can see my fundamental flaw as a marketer who is producing content for an audience.  I was looking to be a developer talking to marketers about software-related topics from a simplistic technical point of view.  I wanted to regurgitate the solutions I found while solving development problems to an audience who did not face those same problems.  I was answering questions that were never asked. 

After recording and listening to my first marketing podcast, I hit the delete button rather than publishing it. I knew I had a persona problem.  I had a basic idea of the issues marketers face since we started working with more marketing teams, but I didn’t know the problems intimately.  

For me, becoming a marketer myself is what allowed me to have the compassion and the empathy required to help solve problems.  This is an amazing approach to understanding a persona but it is not an option for everyone.  In fact, in our work with marketing teams, I am required daily to understand several personas that I can never become. 

However, there is a place in the middle that we need to aim at if we find ourselves the polar opposite of the people we are trying to reach.

With a headline like that, are you just pulling me in to read the article or is there a story behind it?

So I posed the question in the headline, Would you help your persona out of a burning truck? 

Your answer may be, duh, of course, I am human.  Maybe your answer is well that is not really me but I would try to help.  Heck, maybe your answer would be no.  Whatever the answer is, it will give you an indicator of where your heart is for the people you market to. 

The next question I pose is, If you knew they made a mistake to cause the accident, would you still have compassion?  At the heart of this question is what makes or breaks our efforts. 

My adventures one hour after I left for Content Marketing World 2015

So the picture in the header of this post is one that came off my cell phone on the way to Content Marketing World.  I was smacked in the face with the question I posed at the beginning of this post right after a terrible rain storm and before the sunrise.  Driving down I-70 about 30 minutes outside of Kansas City, cruise control was set and I had personal EDM playlist cranked on Spotify.  Hey, you have to listen to some pretty loud and dance-inspiring music to drive 13 hours by yourself in the Midwest.

About a quarter of a mile in front of me was a semi-truck and I could see the four rear lights forming a near square.  The imaginary horizontal lines that connected the lights were running parallel to the road as expected. 

Then something odd happened, the brake lights on the truck were activated, causing me to wake out of my rave music induced state of in car dancing that I should not be admitting is a pretty normal occurrence.  So my reaction is to turn off cruise control and try to analyze the situation.

Then something odd happens again, the parallel lines started tilt at a slight angle.  With the brake lights still activated, I ask myself the question that has a very popular three-letter-acronym starting with the letter W and ends in F. 

Then something so odd happened that it fits in the category of unbelievable.  Those parallel lines formed by the taillights quickly went from horizontal to vertical and beyond until the truck disappears. 

Wait a minute, I thought you said your persona was a marketer, why is a marketer driving a truck?

Seriously, I am in the middle of the story and you ask a question like this?  Fine, let me rewind a bit.

Over the past year, we started working with a new client on their content management system and a mobile application.  Like most of our engagements, I had built a relationship with the client in the marketing department.  After some strategy sessions, I was able to learn the basics about their target audience.  They are in the trucking industry and deal with a lot of fleets and owner/operators. 

Since they offer so many solutions, it was important for me to do some research.  Being a former cubicle nerd, I don’t really relate to people who work outside the office for a living.  Writing this post in a Starbucks is probably the closest thing to working outside I have done in years. 

So I started to learn more about what a trucker does.  What problems do they face on a regular basis?  How often can they drive?  What are the daily tasks to drive a truck? And the burning question for me, what the hell is a weigh station besides a place to park government vehicles next to what looks to be an empty shack?

The more I dug into the persona of a trucker, I began to realize there were many different types of people who haul loads and their motivations vary.  I needed to get beyond the lumped category of the trucker and really dig into the problems faced by the various types.  Same problem I face with marketers but this time I wasn’t going to be able to get behind the wheel and haul a load.  You kind of need some training and a specific driver’s license to do that.

Each time you learn something new about the activities of your persona, you can decide to look at the motivation for their person to do the activity or just skim by and make an assumption.  Sometimes assumptions are necessary but should be flagged and reviewed as soon as possible.  If they are left as assumptions your bias towards the persona, whether that is positive or negative, could draw you to the wrong conclusion.

So over time I started to really like truckers.  Since I drive a lot, I now prefer truck stops over typical gas stations because of the extra convenience they offer to folks who are out for the long haul.  I still have more experiences I would like to have to understand truckers better, but I am making progress.

Thanks, you can continue the story now.

The words that exited my mouth would not be appropriate for work, but you can imagine what I said. Immediately I slammed on my brakes and pulled off on the shoulder and paused for a second in shock. 

See, my wife handles typical situations like this.  Like the time she rescued an elderly couple out of a burning house and I got to sit in the car and call 911.  Or the car accident she witnessed where she was able to help a man tourniquet his leg that allowed him to get to the hospital where he would later pass away after he was able to see his family one last time. 

I am man enough to admit the fact that my wife is more badass in situations like this than I am because she is.  Once I got out of the car, my first reaction was to panic.  I have absolutely no training for this.  Hey, maybe someone else does, so I start flagging down cars. 

To their credit, I was a bearded, backward hat wearing Mini Cooper driver on the side of the road frantically waving his hands trying to get someone’s attention. No other drivers pulled over at the scene of the accident. 

Crap, time for Plan B.  Hey, I should call 911.  I have butt dialed 911 before and they answered.  I have attempted to dial our area code 913 and the phone double pressed the 1 and they have answered.  But my luck ran out this time and no one picked up. 

Dang, time for Plan C.  Next I decide to go down the hill and prepare myself for the worst.  On the way down the overgrown grass hill, I immediately smelled gas.  Not just a little bit, but a lot.  I come around the hood of the Kenworth sleeper truck and looked into the cab.  There was the driver, a larger guy who was not in the best shape, a detail that is important later, getting to his feet inside the cab with a flashlight.  No blood, thank God!  From a good distance I asked if he was ok. He nodded his head yes. 

Since the truck was at a slant, I stood in the grass not in the path of the direction it was heading down the hill on its side.  I yelled, “How can I help you?”  His reply was obvious, “Help me get out!”  Instead of yelling back what was going through my head, I replied with, “Can you kick the window out?”  I have watched enough Grey’s Anatomy, ER, and Chicago Fire to know that is possible, right.  Well after a few failed attempts that didn’t work.

*#$%, time for Plan D.  The next words out of his mouth caused so much fear that I am sure I responded with “Ok!” but I was shaking my head side-to-side.  He wanted me to hold the door.  I ran up to the truck on the path I was determined it wanted to continue on its slide to the bottom and got ready to grab the door that he was going to push open.  Since a truck is pretty wide and it was on its side, the door was over both of our heads.  He stood on the steering column and pushed it open and I grabbed it with one hand.  The other hand I kept on my side so if something started moving I could exit quickly.

Side note:  For anyone who has sat through my Agile Marketing Workshop during the estimating section, I pose the question, How much does a car weigh?  Then I have people break the car into pieces and gauge the weight.  I believe each time I nonchalantly say, Now let’s think about the doors, they can’t weigh that much.  Well, I was wrong, they are actually pretty heavy. 

When you are opening a door over your head, gravity dislikes the situation and prefers the door to remain shut.  So our brilliant plan came slamming down on my finger connecting me with the truck and requiring more words to peppered the air that I will spare you from.  He pulled the handle and pushed the door back open and my hand was freed. 

Whatever, Plan E’s turn.  In a moment of clarity, I thought, hey let’s use a rope!  I headed back towards my car before I realized I was a former developer who is now a marketer and I have no reason to carry a rope.  Dang.  I also realized I forgot my laundry at home which included all my shorts and a belt so I need to go to the store to get some new items.  That belt would have sure been nice right now.

The letter F in Plan F could represent several words, but the one I will go with is fire.  When I got back to the truck, I noticed a large amount of smoke coming from under the truck and rolling over and in front of the cab.  That is when it really became real

I decided to go back to the “open the door” strategy and I grabbed on to an antenna attached to the door.  It immediately broke off.  Superman right, probably not.  At this point it was time to commit. Commit was the first word that came to mind when explaining to people what happened and it still the only word I can think of.  I walked up next to the truck and got on my tippy toes with my hands over my head.  Once he flung the door open, I grabbed it with both hands and held it.  The driver started to make his way up the truck like it was a climbing wall and wiggled and jarred the cab as much as he probably could.  “Come on, throw your legs over man!” came out of my mouth as I coached him through his escape.  Once he had his body out, he spun around and slide down the top of the truck to the ground.  I dropped the door and we got out of Dodge. 

Thankfully whatever was on fire went out when we got around the truck and we made our way to the road.  To my surprise, a lady was walking towards us with a phone in her hand.  She was able to get 911 on the phone and they were on their way.  She was a trucker herself and had parked on the shoulder.  Since her truck was looking like it was the next to go and the emergency services were on their way, she headed out to get back on the road. 

So what caused the wreck?

It was me and the trucker standing there and instead of introducing myself, we just started talking.  I have no idea what his name is and he doesn’t know mine.  I found out he was pulling over to do some paperwork and the shoulder broke away.  This was his big mistake.  You normally use a truck stop, weigh station, off ramp, or a rest area to do your logs. 

When I tell people about the accident and what caused it, most immediately judge the decision and call him an idiot.  Those who understand the industry say he probably lost his job because of it and that is unfortunate.  

It was clearly not a good decision and was the very reason he was in the predicament he was in.  But we all face decisions during the day and sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed.  I could relate his desire to get the required task complete as quick as possible and felt bad for the conversation that was coming his way.  Think of how many stupid decisions you make on a daily basis in the car.  Checking your phone, looking at a sweet car that passed you, or just daydreaming.  Heck, I have even seen people reading books as they are driving.  Any one of those decisions could have caused an accident so we have to not put ourselves on a pedestal.  The key thing is no one was physically hurt, but several were financially impacted.

Truck Wreck - Social 02

So I offered him water or soda but he declined.  Once the ambulance arrived, they said it was clear what happened here and I could leave.  So I shook the trucker’s hand and said I hope his day gets better.  He thanked me for helping and we parted ways.  I was back on the road and for the first time in a long time, I did not require any more coffee to wake me up.

What did you learn?

So I will ask you the questions again that I started with and tell you what I learned when I tried to answer them myself:

  • Would you help your persona out of a burning truck? – The core of this question is, are you willing to help your personas through their problems that are not your own?  Do you have what it takes to dig in, learn more about your audience, and really get to know the people you are creating content for?  If not, give up on Content Marketing!  Seriously, give up.  Your audience deserves better.  Think of it this way, they are given up their time and resources to commit to consuming your content, not the other way around.  You may be spending your time producing it but if you don’t really care about their problems, you will probably lead them down a path that is confusing or even wrong.  I challenge you to take some time and get to know the people you market to.  If you work for an agency, then get to know your own audience and the audience of your clients.  I know it is double the work, but that is what you signed up for.
  • If you knew they made a mistake to cause the accident, would you still have compassion? – This one is a tough one.  Can you see all problems your audience faces, even the ones that are caused by them doing something wrong, with the compassionate heart of a great teacher? I use the word great because not all teachers are the same.  Some teachers have their own agenda.  Whether that is to move up the chain, finding a different audience, or just getting through the day.  However, there are those great and amazing teachers that put aside their agendas to help their students out and they are in turn grateful for the sacrifice.  I propose that the people you find the most influence from in your life have made that sacrifice to help you.  In the marketing world, the first person that comes to my mind is Ann Handley.  She has demonstrated compassion for the marketer who wants to be better and a willingness to press into those who aren’t as motivated.  I have never once heard a single person say one bad word about her.  Is she a saint?  Probably not, we all have our flaws but does she give it her all?  Absolutely, no doubt in my mind. 

I really hope you pause for a few moments today to consider those you are creating content for to see if anything has caused you to be out-of-sync with their needs.  Maybe it is not you, maybe you get the sense that your team is not taking the time necessary to build compelling content.  If that is the case, right down a few action items you can do to get better.  Once those are done, celebrate your accomplishments and write down a few more items.  If you can keep the cycle of always learning, not only in your craft but your ability to empathize and have compassion for your audience, your content will have a better chance of penetrating the hearts and minds of your audience.