July 18, 2016

How (and Why) to Harness Empathy in Storytelling

A Case Study

As advertisers, marketers and communicators, our job is to make content that engages and inspires our audience to take action. For that to happen, it’s not enough to reason with them with facts and figures. You have to move them in some way. For instance, with a story of the Army Sgt. who was awarded this Purple Heart.

Veterans Video Production Screen Shot

Today’s blog will feature a case study of a powerful video made for the VFW, and through it, demonstrate how to harness empathy and emotion in storytelling.



Read more about the day in 2006 Sgt. Stephenson was hit by an IED and given a 5% chance to live.

Why Emotion Works:


VFW, Veterans, Sacrifice, Sgt. Scott Stephenson - a video production by scenic road - man walking down the street along a subway block glass backdrop on crutches.

Empathy happens when you tell a story that puts people in the shoes of your “hero” and take them on a journey.  The story of one man’s struggle becomes your struggle. You are right there with him in those moments of difficulty, of sadness. The story made those 90 seconds count because of empathy.


Veterans and Sacrifice shown through video production by scenic road, showing a man attaching his prostethic leg, required after combat.

This kind of story resonates, or is “sticky”, and even when new stories come along, your audience will remember this one.  Empathy is a effective tool in not only creating engagement, but in driving sales or donations.

Too often in fundraising efforts, executive boards lean heavily on lists, statistics and data. We have facts! They exclaim. Include the figures! They demand. Data doesn’t talk, persuade, or move people to action. In fact, it does the opposite.


Case in point:


Here are some very real, very sobering facts about veterans in this country:

  • Veterans make up 12% of the adult homeless population.
  • 70% of homeless veterans suffer from substance abuse
  • 50% experience mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


Did you quickly scan that? Did your eyes gloss over? Admit it. No, you’re not a monster devoid of feeling. Well, you might be, but that’s not the deciding factor. You’re just human. Neuroscience backs up the fact that we’re wired to be moved by stories over data.


VFW Heroes video production by scenic road's scene features army vet showing war injuries on his face


Sgt. Scott Stephenson is no statistic. He’s a living, breathing, sometimes-struggling-but-always-overcoming bonafide frickin’ war hero. By showcasing him and a day in his life, we empathize. By giving a face to the facts, you not only educate but drive emotional engagement, which in turn spurs people to take action in the form of donating to this important cause.

If you’re in another non-profit, you might think, “Great! Let’s get the best of both worlds and incorporate the facts into the story to say just how many clients are struggling.” If showcasing one client drives engagement, the thinking goes, we should talk about the thousands we serve. On the surface, that makes sense. You’re charged with bringing in funds in order to help as many people as you can. But interestingly, and counterintuitively, by focusing on one person and not including facts about all the other people in need out there, donations are highest.


Now that you understand why empathy and emotion matter in storytelling, let’s find out how this concept came to be.


The backstory

I asked the creative and production teams to share their thoughts on why this video works.


Where did you get the idea for this piece?


Kevin Schwarzenberger, Director and Cinematographer:

First off, t’s a privilege and an opportunity to encapsulate a war hero’s experience on film.  A lot of these veterans won’t talk to anyone at all about their experience, let alone be in a video. I enjoyed every minute I shared with Scott.


I thought it could be potentially visually moving to feature a day in the life of a veteran. I thought it would be great to showcase someone who had been wounded in battle, and thought that a Purple Heart recipient would be ideal.


Darren Mark, Copywriter:

We pitched that idea to the VFW and they responded with the veteran whom we featured.  I then wrote the script around the word “heroes,” imagining what this veteran might say if someone would ask him to speak on the subject.  In other words, we positioned the video as a first person point-of-view take on that subject.


Why did it lend itself to authentic storytelling?

Darren:  Nothing compares to the stark reality of seeing a wounded veteran. There’s an honesty that can’t be imagined or constructed.  It exists organically. Building a story around this kind of visually stirring imagery allows for a brand of honest storytelling that has the potential to impact and influence.


Veterans and Sacrifice shown through the everyday lives of war heroes as portrayed in the video production by scenic road


What is different/special about the way it was shot? 

Kevin:  I think emotion was a driver. I first met Scott in order to scout his home for this project.  By that point in our process Darren had what I thought was a very solid script.  I sat down with Scott and had him read it in front of me making sure he felt it like I did.  I needed him motivated and emotionally invested, as I was about to get all up in his business with lights, cameras, etc. for days.  During this scout, Scott shared with me a photo of him in the Los Angeles Times which sparked my ideas for the lighting style that made sense to me.


Why do you think emotion is an effective marketing tool, and how does this concept harness that? 


VFW, Veterans, war memorial with man standing in front placing hand on memorial's stone.


Darren:  Emotion — whether through heart-wrenching drama or gut-busting comedy — is more effective a marketing tool than any other technique.  Why?  Because it builds that most human of connections between brand and customer. Emotion disguises the “sell”.  Emotion makes people feel, and emotion puts a beating heart behind a brand.  And so using it as a sales technique, we prompt the customer to actually remember the product.  Heroes relies on emotion to speak to its viewers by way of piercing visuals, an honest voiceover delivery and a direct script.  When Sgt. Stephenson’s wife examines his wounds, we begin to imagine his struggle.  When we watch him climb the stairs, we we put ourselves in his shoes, asking ourselves how we would handle similar challenges.  And he puts his hand on the memorial wall, we’re confronted with the frame of a man that’s been permanently damaged in the name patriotism.  The emotion is unavoidable.  It prompts inner dialogue, questions, and thoughts.  And in 90 seconds, a memory is born.


This video was part of a content strategy for the VFW, in order to further extend the reach.

Other content that was developed:

:60 broadcast spot
Emails to 500,000+ audience
Social Media Posts
Landing Page for Year-End Campaign
Extended use of video by making it part of the “welcome” email strategy
Featured in their annual report
Used as a motivational piece in internal presentations, sponsor pitches
Integration on a donation page for monthly giving appeal


Overall, the campaign was very successful, producing a 25.7% increase in the number of donations over the prior year and a 39.9% increase in revenue.

This was the highest performing email in terms of clickthroughs, with an overall average clickthrough rate more than 20% higher than the next highest performer. In some audience segments, the clickthrough rate was more than 3.4%. (Blackbaud 2015 Benchmark on clickthroughs for an appeal email was 0.61%.)

Visitors to this web page stayed more than 60% longer than the overall average site visit. 0.74% of all page visitors made a donation.

More than 200,000 people viewed the video through the VFW’s various channels.


By delivering a video that evokes empathy, and leveraging that story across multiple channels, this campaign inspired audiences into action. Job well done.


A sincere thank you to Sgt. Stephenson for his service, and for sharing his story, his life, with us. It’s an honor.


If you’d like to read more about authentic storytelling, check out this recent blog. If you’ve seen or created a powerful form or example of storytelling lately, send me an email. I’d love to feature it in an upcoming post.