Does your copy snap, crackle and pop? Or are your hard-crafted messages more flop than fizz?
Would you be interested to know there is a simple technique you could apply to your content right now, to give it lots more life, energy and impact?
If you’re spending lots of time and effort thinking about what to say, putting in the hard yards to create the content, only to find it lacks oomph – this blog is for you!
In this second instalment of our mini-series of blogs to sharpen up the words you write or speak, this week we’re looking at one of the most powerful things in your communication toolkit – a technique that will add life, pace and interest to your copy. It’s a technique that will make your content more compelling and more credible.
It’s called active voice, and if you’re anything like most of our lovely clients, you probably haven’t given it much thought since your English lessons at school.
PUT PEOPLE FIRST
Put simply, writing and talking in the active voice means putting emphasis on a person doing something – whereas the passive voice puts emphasis on the object that is receiving that action.
This creates more action and movement in your words, conveying energy to your reader or listener.
For example – which of these sounds punchier? Which draws you in by its pace and immediacy?
The goal was scored by Beckham (passive).
Beckham scored the goal (active).
Instructions will be given to you by the director (passive).
The director will give you instructions (active).
The blog will be shared by us every Sunday (passive).
We will share the blog every Sunday (active).
In the first example, the object (the goal) is given more emphasis than the subject (Beckham). But in the second example – the active voice – the sentence is much more about the person involved and what he did.
Neither version of these examples is wrong. Both convey the same facts. But in each example, one is tighter and pacier – and will give your writing a different kind of energy that draws people in.
GRAMMAR SMALL PRINT (JUST A LITTLE)
In passive voice, the sentence structure is object – action – subject (like goal – scored – Beckham).
In active voice, the sentence structure is reversed and is now subject – action – object (like Beckham – scored – goal).
In passive voice, an action is done to someone or something. This makes them or it seem powerless. In fact, in passive voice, you don’t even have to mention the person performing the action – it’s enough to say, for example, “instructions will be given to you”.
But in active voice, the emphasis is on the person and what they are doing. It gives the sentence more ownership and more pizazz. Your readers will feel a stronger connection to the subject than to the object. (This is how I always prompt myself – people before things.)
PACE AND ENERGY
Sometimes it sounds plain daft to write or speak in the passive voice – for example, would you ever say things like:
A film is going to be watched by us tonight.
My advert was not responded to by anyone.
The last biscuit was eaten by whom?
Or would you more likely say:
We’re going to watch a film tonight.
No one responded to my advert.
Who ate the last biscuit?
When we speak conversationally, we tend to use active voice – not least because it’s quicker and uses fewer words. Well, that same energy applies to writing your business content – a faster narrative that is more engaging to read.
(And as a bonus – writing in the active voice will get rid of a lot of those green wavy lines under your text in a Word document!)
OPEN AND TRANSPARENT
Sometimes, writing and speaking in the passive voice can even make you sound a bit shifty, like you’re hiding something or shifting the blame. For example:
A decision has been made to increase the prices. (This is passive voice, and as you can see in this example, it doesn’t even require a subject – so no one has to own these nasty decisions. But doesn’t it make you sound powerless and less like a leader?)
We / I have decided to increase the prices. (This is active voice – and while people might still groan about the prices going up, at least it’s clear who owns the decision and who’s in charge around here. It’s more open and honest, and makes it easier for you then to go on to explain your decision.)
CLEAR FOR EVERYONE
The Plain English Campaign – the organisation that awards the well-regarded ‘Crystal Mark’ for clarity in the UK – suggests that all communication should be written or spoken in the active voice. There are exceptions – times when passive voice can give you a brief moment of variety in writing speed, or when the subject cannot be named for any reason – but generally it’s a good rule to write and speak in active voice.
It’s also easier to understand active voice if English is not your first language – so if you’re writing for a global audience, as many of you are in this digital age, it’s especially wise to use this technique. Don’t get hung up on it being grammar – just remember to put the person first!
Best of all? You can use this technique to transform the content you have created already – just by reordering your sentences, rather than rewriting from scratch. We promise the difference will be remarkable.
Next week, we’re continuing this series with a look at one of our favourite subjects – the easy way you can make sure your content positions you as a go-to expert and authority, just by reframing particular words into something more engaging, inspiring and assertive.
Let us know if you’d like to get these blogs and free teach-ins sent directly to your inbox so that you never miss a thing (there’s a FOLLOW button to the right, or below on a phone).
Oh, and if you missed last week’s content instalment – the ‘keep it short and simple’ principle – why not check it out here?
Have a great week; have fun with your active voice, and please let us know how you get on!
Lucy & Emma | The Communication Coaches