Who wants to sound strident? Strong? Compelling? Convincing? I’d say ‘yes’ to all four descriptors when it comes to leadership. This blog outlines why excessive use of passive voice (and other wishy-washy language) makes us sound weak and unappealing to our readers. (And yes, like a limp noodle.)
Passive voice sounds unclear
Passive remains helpful when we don’t know (or our audience doesn’t care) specifically who’s doing an action. News reports offer tons of examples:
- Polls were closed.
- Shots were fired.
- Mistakes were made.
- This interview has been edited for space.
- Residents have been evacuated.
Where possible, gain your reader’s respect and trust using active voice instead. Some examples follow:
- Election organizers closed polls today.
- Our administration made mistakes.
- We edited this interview for brevity.
- City leaders (or police) ordered residents to evacuate.
Passive voice sounds wordy
When passive lingers in our sentences, often the sentence becomes unnecessarily wordy, too. Consider these examples:
- The venture was held back by limited funding vs. limited funding hampered the venture.
- The staff were let go by the company vs. the company terminated staff.
- The committee notes were drafted by the vice president vs. the VP drafted the committee notes.
Shaving a word or two mightn’t seem like much. But if you look at an entire document, especially a giant one, these saved words quickly add up.
Passive voice sounds indirect and overly formal
Passive voice also serves us well when we know who did the acting, but we don’t want to (or can’t) say so. Sometimes we keep our sentences passive because the doer of the action feels obvious. In my book, these reasons seem perfectly fine for keeping passive in place. Even so, try removing to sound direct vs. indirect and approachable vs. lofty. A few examples of where passive voice serves the writer no good follow:
- Flights were canceled.
- Sabbatical leave has been cut.
- Staff were let go.
- The offensive tweet has been reported to staff and removed from Twitter.
- Free coffee has been removed from the cafeteria.
Once you fix the passive, you might also add additional, clarifying details in hopes your readers view you (and the news) more favorably.
- The airline (or we) canceled flights today due to increment weather. We felt (for the safety of our passengers) grounding all flights remained safest and best.
- Because nobody within our team took the leave, we’ve removed sabbatical from our benefits.
- We let go of 50 staff members today; the move felt extremely tough, but we know a leaner team and more online vs. retail store sales remain the only way to sustain our business and loyal customers.
Bottom line: When you can state who did something, tell us. Your reader will appreciate your crisp, personal, and honest approach.