Empathy, emotion, and making your message hit home

Pete Lead
5 min readJul 17, 2018


My recent philosophy and communication course included a trip to a gallery in order to ask some questions of art. One of our tasks was to find works where we felt the artist was trying to convey a message, and curate a mini album.

My album, below, is themed around pride and joy.


Those are the emotions I sense in the artworks. But a question niggled at me: where does the emotion originate? Is the image joyful, and therefore I feel a sense of joy when I see it, which in turn creates joy in me? Or do I read joy into it, and therefore manufacture the emotion myself?

What of pride? I don’t feel proud when I see those images. I sense pride in the subjects. But if the artists didn’t paint them as displaying pride does that mean the feeling comes from me, the observer and interpreter?

Pretty sure the artist wasn’t going for “proud”. More like “done”.

The origins of emotion

I had a chance to explore this concept again a few weeks ago. We were split into groups and tasked with creating a video in a day on our allocated topic: in our case the government’s changing policies on asylum seeker rights and support. We got to choose the intended audience and the purpose of the video.

Watch our video below, ideally with sound. I’ll discuss it more after the embed.

Obviously we were going for an emotive message. So what did you feel, and what emotions did you detect?

The two genuine emotional states I saw in Natasha during shooting were laughter and discomfort, the latter of the “get that camera away from me” variety. Some of the shots used in the video were from a lighting test. One shot we had to crop in post-production to remove the wifi login card that was in the background clutter.

Natasha wasn’t even going to be in the video. She was sitting in the chair so we could test the setup.

Anything else you saw came from you, the observer.

Do you feel manipulated? If so, who did the manipulating: me or you?

Let’s play a game using images from Unsplash, chosen for their aspect ratios.

1. Which of these photos is about friendship, and which is about loss?

Friendship or loss?

2. Which is about playfulness, and which is about perspective?

Playfulness or perspective?

3. Which is about self-confidence, and which is about dinner?

Self-confidence or dinner?

You’re smart (and maybe vegan) so you already know there are no right answers. Hopefully you could see that the themes could apply to either photo. You just created a little story in your head to fill in the gaps. All I did was plant the seed of context.

So how could you use this little quirk of our brains in your communications?

  1. Set the tone. Use colours and images (and typefaces, perhaps) that create the feeling you want to convey / invoke. Alternately, use words to evoke the tone you want in your imagery.
  2. “I am rubber you are glue.” You can tell a story with emotional content without getting all teared-up yourself. Tell them about that time your puppy was sick, and you let her outside, and it wasn’t until an hour later that you went to check on her and saw she had collapsed in the backyard because she was so weak. And you realised you had been sitting inside drinking wine while your poor little bear was lying on the cold pavers unable to move. (True story.) They’ll get how terrible and sad you (still) feel. You don’t have to act it out — they’ll put themselves right there in your shoes.
  3. Set the stage for your emotional finish. Build the emotion and then drop your product into it.

“So you get out of bed every morning and put on your Running Shoes. And 6 mornings out of 7 you never make it out the front door. But one day you open the door… and start running. It’s tough. You’re in the worst shape of your life. And you want nothing else but to stop. But you know that for every second you stay on that road, sweating, swearing… you know that for every second you push your limits… you know that you are one step closer to being the person you want to be. Running Shoes. Own them.

Or maybe this:

“Soylent Green is lending a hand to those in need. Soylent Green is ensuring no child goes hungry. Soylent Green… is people.”

“I hope you’re not, like, vegan or anything.”



Pete Lead

I work with startups, teach entrepreneurship, and freelance in improv and leadership coaching.