How’s your voice? Active? Passive? Shout? Whisper?

Nearly all of us nonfiction/business writing gurus (ye Gods, what an awful cliché) pound tables and shout loudly that active voice rather than passive voice is essential in marketing communications no matter what. Mea culpa  here, in fact many times.

Active voice, undeniably, delivers resultsBut this is not necessarily the right answer.

If you deliver a marketing communications message to your readers, a weak and watery “readers interested in discovering more about this fascinating subject about the ways in which you can protect yourself from stings whilst indulging in your hobby of bee-keeping…”

…is not going to galvanize them into reacting anywhere nearly as much as if you say, “click here for more on how to protect yourself from stings when you’re dealing with your bees.”

So active always wins, huh?

Hmmmm …. not necessarily. Let’s look at another context.

If you are an image consultant and are writing or speaking to prospective customer, which of the following two approaches would be the more likely to lead to a (sales) conversion?

Active: Your taste in clothes is out of date. You need to invest in a completely new wardrobe to boost your morale and I can provide it for you. You will like the choices. 

Passive: It’s likely that your present wardrobe is not quite up to current fashions. People like you often find that a completely new wardrobe is not only a lovely boost to confidence and morale, but also is a great investment. My clients always love the choices I make for them and and I’m sure you would, too. 

Why active wins, where it does

Active wins because it cuts the crap and uses “go words” to motivate readers to do something.

This win covers a great deal of hard promotional text and ad copy. Even harking right back to the advertising days of David Ogilvy (bless his heart –  I entertained him at a dinner party in my home back in the dark ages and thought he was a pompous grump who bullied his employees despite his being brilliant, but never mind) – mealy-mouthed 3rd-party ad copy was proven to be useless.

To be persuasive and invigorate support for what you were promoting, positive, active-voice, no bullsh*t words were key.

And to a large extent this still applies today.

So where does active voice give way to passive voice now?

Given that online communications have opened up a vast range of new pathways through which we as both businesses and individuals can communicate, the old ground rules of marketing communications have taken a bit of a beating.

When marketing communications were still in their old two-dimensional phase back in pre-internet times we all used active voice to promote our work and that of our clients, because that’s what the age-old ad industry had taught us to do.

However marcomms now have changed, as you know. It’s no longer about two-dimensional comms centred on “buy this because.” It’s about conversations, not presentations, as someone much smarter than me said a while back.

And conversations should not be about active voice. You don’t tell someone to buy this or investigate that, unless it comes at the tail end of a very well argued blog post or other piece of prose.

Hence, passive voice has a place

Customers, buyers, and other interested parties nowadays may feel insulted if you use active voice to try to spur them on to do whatever it is you want them to do.

That’s especially relevant if you’re talking about a blog, social media post, or other form of inbound marketing communication. Let’s look at another example of when the passive voice can actually help you in a commercial context…

You’re going to lag behind your friends and look foolish if you don’t get the latest update of this App now.

People who get themselves ahead of the crowd and think about uploading this latest App really score … it’s a must-have for people just like you…

Which would attract you more?

Would love to know your thoughts, so please share!


About the author: Suzan St Maur


This article was first published on Suzan St Maur’s HowToWriteBetter.net … the largest all-genre writing site on the internet with more than 1,000 articles and tutorials on how to write better across 26 categories covering business, blogging and other content writing, social media, job search, academic writing, speeches – plus fiction, personal, music, poetry and much more.

This article was first published by Suzan St Maur

2 replies
  1. Xerxes Aga
    Xerxes Aga says:

    Neither Active or Passive be. Be interesting. Be concerned. Be a friend. Be funny (why not?). Be intimate. Shout from the roof tops or whisper in a ear, it doesn’t matter as long as you are persuasive enough to convert your conversation into action by the listener. That IS the whole point, isn’t it?

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