We all have that friend who just cannot tell a story. You know the one I’m talking about, right? Every time this friend starts a tale, a cold shiver of dread runs through you. The action falls flat, you can’t tell who is doing what, and every sentence feels unremarkable. You nod and smile, mentally replaying the plot of your favorite movie to survive your friend’s seemingly unending story.
I’ve been trying to ditch this friend for years. But what tenacity this friend has! Showing up over and over again.
Who am I talking about?
Passive voice, of course.
Passive voice is everywhere in the world of communications: brochures, white papers, ebooks, email campaigns, RFPs. It particularly likes to hang in website copy, from bullet points that highlight brand differentiators to descriptions of products, services or processes.
We do copywriting work for a variety of organizations – particularly in healthcare, but in other industries as well. Our clients are very smart people. But they get stuck in the trap of using passive voice because they think it offers a more magnanimous approach or that it sounds more established. It doesn’t. In marketing web copy, passive voice comes off as oddly formal at best, and awkward and stilted at worst. It’s nearly always lacking in warmth, clarity and agency.
Passive voice sentences are so focused on the “what,” that they miss the “who” and the “why.” Forget 7th grade grammar. The real problem for marketers is this fundamental misdirection.
What is Passive Voice?
I have a quick tutorial to help explain passive vs. active voice. In fact, the tutorial is right in the title of this post:
- Passive voice: Passive voice should be avoided by you.
- Active voice: You should avoid passive voice.
Pretty simple, right? Even my Microsoft Word grammar checker flagged the passive voice sentence. It’s slightly less obvious in this example, which a passive voice checker catches:
- Passive voice: Coronary artery disease can be managed through medication, interventional procedures and heart surgery.
- Active voice: We manage coronary artery disease through medication, interventional procedures and heart surgery.
The passive voice sentence is weaker and lacks agency. The focus is on coronary artery disease itself. “But that’s what we want to focus on!” you say. In fact, you don’t. You want to focus on how your team fixes the problem. “But we shouldn’t keep saying ‘we,’” you counter. If that is your main concern, there are other ways to avoid starting every sentence with “we,” and still write in active voice.
When you’re a marketer, keep the service or a solution you’re offering at the center of the action. It’s not egotistical. It’s simply clear and actionable. And tie your service to a patient/customer benefit.
Can I Ever Use Passive Voice?
The beauty of the English language is that it’s a mighty toolbox, full of interesting and varied tools. That includes sentences that purposely shift action around.
Passive voice works well when you are:
- Making a general statement that draws attention to the thing and not the agent: “Bullying will not be tolerated here.”
- Writing a history: “The house was built in 1920.”
- Trying to deflect information because you don’t want the reader to imagine it happening to him or her: “Side effects experienced include explosive diarrhea.”
- Deliberately manipulating the rhythm of a sentence, perhaps to set a scene: “The day, once full of hope, was now ruined.”
Use a Passive Voice Checker
We’ve always included “writing in active voice” as a line item in the Aha Media Group’s style guide. For a passive voice checker as we write, we turn to the Hemingway App. Simple copy and paste your content into the passive voice checker, and it highlights any instances of passive voice in green.
But I also offer this rule of thumb to all marketers: if you have a passive voice sentence, and you’re not sure if it’s appropriate, take the time to rewrite it as an active voice sentence and see. Often, clients aren’t even aware of passive voice vs. active voice. They fall into a mode of saying things in a certain way and just run with it.
Stop and take a breath. Read your copy. Listen to it. Are you moving around the agency of the sentence for a good reason, or simply because you did it in the previous sentence, and the one before that, and the one before that …?
So, if you’re stuck at a cocktail party, and the bad sentences are coming at you right and left, come find me, and I’ll rescue you. Because friends don’t let friends use passive voice.
Want to know more about the Aha Media Group writing style and editing process? Read The 10 Commandments of Content to learn more about our writing guidelines.