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Communicating Purpose with Empathy: What Businesses Can Learn from Movies

Businesses often fail to connect with their customers because of one reason: conflicting purposes. When the business purpose matches the customer purpose – empathy strikes, a bond is built, and the journey to value begins. What better place to learn how to do that but the film industry!

Consider this story: A dancer is completely taken over by her desire to get selected for a lead role. She is stressed to the breaking point and is obsessed with getting the part.

Her Purpose: To compete and get selected.

The Writers Purpose: To make the audience empathize with her

This is what happens in the movie Black Swanwhere the ballerina, Nina, in her pursuit of getting selected, loses her grip on reality. In a powerful scene, Nina, played by Natalie Portman, begins to hallucinate black feathers poking through her skin, a sign that she is becoming the part she is meant to play.

Darren Aronofsky, who directed Black Swan has a remarkable knack for putting his audience in the mindset of mentally unstable and anguished characters. According to Talma Hendler, a neuroscientist, when people watched that scene, their brain activity resembled the pattern that has been observed in people with schizophreniaThis shows how great screenplay and direction created a strong bond of empathy between the audience and the character.

Empathy is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. That’s exactly what the actors and screenwriters want the people watching the movie to feel. They want the viewers to live vicariously through the characters because that is the cinematic experience that most people want to be engaged by.

Hero or Anti-hero, Empathy Always Wins the Audience!

Traditional screenwriting professed the protagonists to have a flawless character like Superman and Captain America. But in today’s cinema and television platforms, that rule has become more and more blurred thanks to excellent storytelling that offers flawed characters and antiheroes as protagonists.

Shows like Money HeistThe SopranosNarcosBreaking Bad and Game of Thrones have excelled at presenting characters that aren’t always likeable or acting according to what the society perceives to be a good thing— yet we feel empathy towards them because of various character traits.

Here are few more examples of how the script and screenplay writers have invoked empathy with characters resulting in a connected audience:

Losing a loved one

Having a character in mourning is an outstanding way to create empathy and add depth. One of the recent examples is the death of Iron Man (Tony) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The scene towards the end of Avengers – Endgame when Pepper asks Tony to rest, and then later all the people he had touched gather to mourn the end of Iron Man, has been regarded as the most emotional scene in recent times. Tony was the man who kick-started the MCU eleven years back and has been part of it since its inception. Additionally, the character is associated with Robert Downey Jr., one of Hollywood’s most loved actor. The story writers were able to achieve strong character attachment over a decade and in this particular scene, brought people together to mourn for both Tony’s death and Robert’s exit from MCU. 

Struggling of Underdogs

The best sports movies are those that showcase the story of the underdog. No one wants to see the champions win another game. Audiences love an underdog. Why? Because they can identify with that. They understand what it means to be that average person.

When you position your character as the underdog in whatever situation they are in, it means that there’s going to be more struggle and conflict. And conflict is everything in a successful screenplay.

Chak De! India and Million Dollar Baby – for which Hilary Swank got an Oscar – are examples of the films of underdogs who vanquish insurmountable odds and win, exemplifying the triumph of the will. This particular scene encapsulates the whole movie where despite a broken nose, the protagonist carries on and eventually wins the match. 

Humanizing of negative characters

There’s undoubtedly some truth to the subtle effects of a character showcasing a love for animals or one that embraces innocence. It points to a character trait that audiences appreciate — humanity. In John Wick, the titular character is not only mourning the loss of his wife, but he also showcases that love for animals. While the puppy that his wife left him after she died was more of a symbol representing his last connection to her, the fact that he displayed humane traits allowed the audience to feel instant empathy towards him — despite the fact that he was really a trained and lethal killer.

Dealing with Pain

It could be cancer, shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or an addiction. When you give your character an inner struggle to deal with, the audience feels that empathy towards them — even if your character is an antagonist or antihero. It works like a cathartic experience for the audience.

Had Breaking Bad just been about a man who decided to live a life of crime for money, there would have been little to no empathy towards him. But because he had cancer and was doing all of that for his family, the audience feels more empathy towards him.

Being Loyal

A character that displays devout loyalty to his or her own family, friends, mentors, or peers has a character trait that audience members respect and cherish — loyalty.

The antihero Wolverine/Logan in Logan displays his sheer antihero qualities that were a staple for his character in all of the X-Men movies in full force. In the timeline of this film, he’s all about self-preservation. He doesn’t even care about the little girl at first. But we learn that his self-preservation is accompanied by his loyalty for an ageing Professor Xavier — the only man that ever showed faith in him as a human being when we first met him in the first X-Men movie.

He could just have easily been left Professor Xavier to die — the world would have been safer if he had — but instead, he suffered through a thankless limo driving job to afford the drugs that the Professor needed and he did everything he could to keep him safe.

Fighting for Justice

It’s embedded in our human nature to feel for someone that has suffered through some form of injustice.

And even more masterfully in The Shawshank Redemption. When we see Andy’s escape, knowing the immense amount of injustice he faced throughout his decades spent in prison for a crime he did not commit, the payout of the empathy we felt for him is delivered tenfold — and that is what makes this character trait so powerful.

And this injustice trait can be applied subtly as well. It doesn’t have to encompass the whole story. Instead, it can add to the depth of the character and gives audiences a reason to feel for them just a little more.

Character empathy is vital to the screenplay as much as customer empathy to your business. If the audience (customers) doesn’t feel some form of empathy towards them, there’s going to be less of an impact made upon them. The successful cinema storytellers have been able to make that cathartic mark on the audience who watches their films or shows. Businesses that show empathy towards customer purposes can move them in a similar way to drive loyalty.

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