How To Be A Sap, Redux

Wednesday, 10:36pm
Reno, NV
To the moon, Alice!” (Ralph Kramden)


I’m recycling a post from a little while back, because it’s on a subject that can never be discussed too many times…

… especially when it’s important that you establish a real, visceral connection with people to make your business work.

In fact, what I’m bring up here is much more critical to creating effective advertising than many of the obvious things people tend to focus on (like “long copy versus shot copy”, or how to test offers).

Listen: If you understand how to use the powerful tool explained below…

… you can screw up almost every other part of creating your ad (or video, or website, or email, or whatever you’re using to get your story across)… and still crush it with results.

So ignore the details in this dusty post (like references to “Six Feet Under”, that great HBO series now long-gone)…

… and know that the insight revealed here will forever be one of the most influential you’ll ever use in marketing.

In fact, it’s just becoming more and MORE important as social media and info-overwhelm continues to nudge everyone toward ADHD-Land, where attention spans are pathetic and fundamental human emotions like empathy wither.

Here’s the post (with a few edits and some added stuff):

Jeez Louise. Did you catch Sunday’s episode of “Six Feet Under” on HBO, with the jarring funeral scenes?

It was… shattering.

I was jarred back to every funeral I’d ever attended, and had emotions wrung out of me I’d long forgotten about.

Screw reality TV. The truly well-written fictional shows (most of them on HBO) can still rattle your cage like classic literature.

That episode was quality emotional-wringing.

Got me thinking, too. About empathy. And writing.

I’ve known people who seem to have shut down their empathy gears… and it becomes evident when they lose the ability to get outside of themselves and see the world from other people’s viewpoint.  Movies require you to emotionally connect with the characters…

… and I recall uncles who fell asleep during the pea-soup-spewing scenes in “The Exorcist”…

… friends who laughed all through “Jaws”…

… and (in a real-world example) even an acquaintance who wondered what the big deal was when a colleague freaked out over a cherished cat’s sudden demise.

I also first saw “Saving Private Ryan” with a friend who was still a little shaky over his years in Vietnam during the war. He’d asked me to see it with him for moral support… and while he didn’t seem to have a tough time watching the movie, I kept an eye on him anyway, not sure what sort of poison might be brewing back up.

Those three films — and my experience with pets and people dying and careers ending and relationships imploding — were all emotionally jarring on various levels. And they were executed by master craftsmen, using scripts written by writers who knew where the tender spots were in most audiences.

I always feel a little estranged from people who either are — or claim to be — removed from emotional reactions.

In real life, we mostly experience things from inside our heads or along the contours of our immediate senses. It’s a claustrophobic point-of-view even the best Hollywood-quality cameras can’t yet mimic. In real life, everything happens just outside (or just within) our personal space, moment by moment, with no editing and no replay button.

When you personally feel emotional trauma, it’s a shock-inducing trial by fire that consumes you.

However, watching a TV show or a movie is a removed experience — pure voyeurism. You’re not there. It’s not happening to you. It shouldn’t have the same power as real life.

And yet… sometimes all the emotion of the real experience IS there, bubbling up from deep inside.

All the good writers I know are drenched with emotional self-knowledge and empathy for the emotional experiences of others. We aren’t walking around sobbing hysterically… but we are easily overcome with the feeling of a situation.

Sometimes too easily. Several times, while speaking at seminars, I’ve gone off on tangents about something I really cared about, and felt myself start to choke up. I had to back off, and take a long moment to settle down and re-gather my wits. I know other speakers — the good ones — have had similar experiences.

And I often — often — finish writing something and realize I’ve got tears streaming down my face, and I’m deep into a tub of emotional goo I’ve created as I type.

This extra dose of emotion is no accident. You cannot be a good writer without empathy — without understanding, personally, what it’s like to feel everything humans are capable of feeling.

At full strength, too. The industrial-quality stuff.

The intensity of your ability to feel infuses your writing with power, and a connection to the most complex tragedies, comedies and dramas of human interaction.

In short… feeling strong emotions is a good thing.

If your emotions are in lock-down… from a bad childhood, or from a misguided sense of what it takes to be a man or woman (or leader or executive or parent or biz owner or anything else)… you will never be able to get into another person’s head.

And you’ll never find that sweet spot of need and connection that makes great literature great… and great sales copy a license to print money.

You don’t have to become a Drama Queen.

But you do need to stop pretending that emotions are some foreign intrusion on your coolness. Embrace your ability to know joy, sadness and yes, even pain. These are the building blocks of a well-lived life… and of a very, very, very effective writer.

No one gets out of here without a few tears.

Be a sap. It will help you engage with life more fully, and write with real passion.

Step One: Examine your capacity for empathy right now.  Watch a TV show critically, and know that in most dramas there will be set times when the writers have inserted emotionally-rigged triggers for viewers — they are purposefully trying to tweak your heartstrings or your feelings of fear, sadness, or hope for the good guy to win.

Check yourself for responses.  I know that every episode of “House”, for example, will test me emotionally (usually 47.5 minutes into the show, when a moment of truth arrives for the patient).  (Just kidding — I haven’t timed it.  But I’ll bet I’m close.)  “SVU – Special Victims Unit” will present the same assault on your emotions.  Re-runs of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Two And A Half Men” are rife with them.

You don’t need to burst into tears to know your empathy gears are working.  But you do need to know HOW you respond to both well-written and poorly-written attempts to tweak your heart and ability to care about others.

Step Two: Your life daily presents you with endless opportunities to embrace your full humanity….

… most of which we self-train ourselves to ignore, dismiss, or even fear.

Get over it.

We are, fundamentally, emotional beings… who have created cultures where open displays of emotion are frowned upon, regarded with horror, or at least saddled with restrictions.

It screws us up in spectacular ways.

As a writer, it’s your job to transcend the shackles of repression that hobble others.  You need to give your emotions a daily work-out, strengthen them, know them as well as you know your favorite tastes, smells and visual pleasures…

… and, most of all, you need to respect them.

The world’s gone shallow on us.  That’s a HUGE opportunity for every writer who gets comfortable with emotion (and especially empathy), and knows how to use it to raise his messages above the puddles of feeling now dominating most folks’ lives.

So sap up.  The best writers are fully aware of EVERY part of being human, and this is the big part.

Stay frosty,


P.S. Hope you have a great holiday. The media-driven assault on your emotions is already in high gear, and the corporate guilt-tripping is extremely clever this time around.

So, good luck. Embrace the good times, and hug your loved ones tight. Then learn something during the brazen attempts of companies to wring more cash out of you, especially when they go for the emotional jugular.

Love, and learn. That ain’t a bad philosophy to have going into the new year, you know…

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  • Marcus says:

    Thanks John, up until reading this I’d always felt ‘feeling’ things so strongly was a weakness. Now I can see it is a strength.
    Thanks for this gift and seasons greetings to you =)

    • John Carlton says:

      Definitely not a weakness, Marcus. A strength, as long as you maintain an awareness (and some control). Emotions are one of the few tools we have against the sociopaths out there scheming to turn the world into a Borg network…

  • Alan says:

    Ditto Marcus…John thank you for this gift of insight and your suggestion we take the time to commune with the Sap Factor.

  • Dan Brown says:

    Hey John, really great article. It’s actually my first time on your blog so pretty glad I didn’t have to search through the archives to find this post!

    A really nice holiday surprise 🙂

    Injecting emotions into marketing seems to be so important!!

    All the best for the holidays.


  • Scott says:

    ALong these lines, everyone should watch (or re-watch)Jim Valvano’s speech at the Espy’s when he won the Arthur Ashe Award. Be moved to tears. Laugh. Hug. And think. Thanks for posting.

  • Ken Ca|houn says:

    Another great article. Whenever I read your writing, it’s like you write in vivid color, while the rest of us mere mortals are writing in shades of grey. Kind of like the early scene in Wizard of Oz, going from grey to glorious color. Your palette of words you choose is so much more fascinating, and reads well. I find it hard to expand my writing vocabulary, breakout out of the box/boundaries; word lists like your power words helps.

    Happy holidays…!

    to vivacious, compellingly empathetic prose,


  • Forrest Beck says:


    What a holiday treat. I often find myself watching movies or especially HBO series with a few reluctant tears making their way down my face as I sit quietly next to my wife pretending no one is the wiser.

    Your ability to capture what you do with the written word is something I strive to emulate. Thanks for what you do and how you do it. I have to ask — where does Deadwood fall in the spectrum of HBO series you’ve seen? I apologize if you have written about it in your archives. I haven’t gotten there yet.



  • Great article – and it immediately brought to mind the last occasion I saw John Wayne on television; it was evident he was extremely ill and yet somehow had gathered the courage and strength to attend and participate in the 1979 Academy Awards. The shock I felt was so powerful I can feel it now.


  • Thinking about this one a lot lately, John. Just started reading your blog a few weeks ago. New student of the copywriting arts. Started on the last post and have worked my way down the RSS feed to mid-2009. My eyes are bleeding. Incredible stuff..

    Anyways, getting back to the point of this comment, I’ve been reading books of the self-help genre for quite some time and have wrestled with this concept. Empathy. It seems to go along with the concept of acceptance. Just now, at the age of 33, starting to wrap my head around it, and this post really helped.

    Hearing the sagely advice that we should have more empathy can sound to us ‘mericans like we’re being told to be a human punching bag while having to be ok with it. That’s not it at all, of course, but it was my first ego-driven response to the idea.

    From what you said, which helped make this very clear to me, is that we have to see life for what it is, rather than for what we want it to be. To accept it, get into the nitty gritty of both our emotions and others’, and make our next move from that place of reality as opposed to a place of fantasy and make-believe. Much more powerful. Makes sense. Sorry I just reiterated what you said, but it helps to think this stuff out.

    I’m a fellow Reno resident myself, hope you’re braced for this weekend’s storm. Looks like it might be a good one. Thanks, John. Back to the archives…

  • Empathy isn’t dead or withered, with all this social media exploding around us it’s merely biding time in the shadowy corners. Waiting for us to get over this shallow diet of instant gratification and self-interest.

    As for love and learn, if more people embraced being in the present moment they would find the time for more of this.

    For myself, that’s definitely a worthy philosophy for the coming months.

    Commercial greetings and all the best to you and yours.


  • chris marlow says:

    Empathy is my favorite subject. I can’t hammer it home enough to my copywriting colleagues! I believe it’s the copywriter’s most important job. This is the most eloquent post on the subject I’ve ever see. Beautiful.

  • mark grove says:

    I definitely come across in my blog posts as non-feeling and unempathetic. I seem to be more of a grizzled old timer
    who tells it like it is, and may the chips fall where they may with musicians.

    Guess I have to change that. Damn.

    Thanks for the insight John.

    Mark in Canada

  • Tia Dobi says:

    There’s a factural error in this statement:

    “… social media and info-overwhelm continues to nudge everyone toward ADHD-Land, where attention spans are pathetic and fundamental human emotions like empathy wither.”

    By definition, ADHD is the motherlode of empathy.

    Something else waiting to be capitalised: ADHD peeps make the best usability testers.

    Our uncanny ability to connect things is a trait.

    It seems we don’t give too much of a shit that many people think it’s OK – useful even – to toss about ADHD as a commonplace dis-ease (or disorder or fill-in-your-blank); whereas few are running around trivializing cancer.

    As if ADHD is about a 3-second attention span. Perhaps is the autho is thinking of an eye wink and not a serious block of short-term memory (the essence of ADHD. Which is why the efx of ADHD are similar to Alzheimers, only today is as worse as it gets. Bet you haven’t heard that, eh?).

    Social media is a narcissist’s Holy Grail. Narcissism is prevelant especially in American culture. Killing is the American way. News is the same it’s ever been.

    Killing emotions is a behaviour taught in childhood.

    Fortunately the antidote is more prevelant – and social media has helped that. Vibrational manifesting.

    Life is for the living.

    Peace and profits,
    Tia D.

  • Courtney says:

    I’ve always been the kind of person who looks like they don’t have any external feelings but then goes home and takes everything personally to the point where I can’t even sleep because I’m obsessing over the day’s events. I was taught to envy men who didn’t express themselves. Thankfully, over the years I’ve learned to cry.

    Thank you for recycling this post John. I hadn’t read it before. I have a feeling that I’ve missed a lot of the golden nuggets you’ve shared over the years while I was working away. I needed to read this today.

    • John Carlton says:

      Thanks for the note, Courtney. Maybe I’ll do more recycling, now that I know it’s connecting…

      I just hate the thought of all those bitchin’ posts languishing like Cold Files in the archives, unread and unloved…

  • Rob says:

    Great one John, thanks…

    I like the Mega Ambitious goals plus not expecting to reach most of them = best year ever regardless.

    Huge take home which glued all the pieces of things I have read in the past such as “create your 1 year goal, then create your 5 year goal, then your 15…yada yada” to the point is was self sabotage…

    Agree completely on emotions and feelings, they are a powerful tool, although must be careful not to fall into the manipulation of others using them against us.

    Thanks again,

  • John – Women have known the above all along…


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