Passive voice can make sentences sound vague. Shady, even. Take Ronald Reagan’s famous non-apology of “mistakes were made”. It’s obvious he used passive voice deliberately to avoid responsibility. You see, the thing about passive voice is you can omit the actor or ‘doer’ of the action. That’s great if you’re a politician. But not so great if you want to be clear, unambiguous, and appear trustworthy. Who is responsible?
As in life, we should not be ‘fundamentalist’ about passive voice. There are legitimate reasons for using it. But if you want your content to sound clear and understandable, you should avoid it where possible.
Active and passive voice – what’s the difference?
|Mistakes were made||Frank made mistakes|
|Your application is being reviewed||We are reviewing your application|
This is easier to explain than you might think. In an active sentence, the person or agency that’s “doing the doing” is the subject of the sentence. In a passive sentence, the person or item that’s “done to” is the subject of the sentence. Easier to see if we take some examples.
It sounds simple, but it’s surprising just how much content contains passive voice.
Why passive voice must be avoided
Why you must avoid passive voice
Let’s set aside politicians because we might expect them to be less than truthful. What happens when businesses use passive voice when communicating with a customer? Take this example from a retail bank:
Interest rates will be increased on June 4th.
Imagine that you are a loyal customer. You have a credit card with this bank and a credit card balance that you’re paying off slowly. You receive the above notice. How would you feel? Angry at the news of increased interest rates, perhaps? And possibly frustrated that you don’t have an explanation of why this has happened. Or who made the decision.
Now review the following alternative:
The Federal Open Market Committee recently increased interest rates. This increases our cost to borrow money. We have to therefore increase your interest rate from June 4th. We’re letting you know so that you can prepare for this change.
You might still feel angry, but at least now you understand why the change is happening. While it’s unpalatable news, your bank has been open and honest. They have put you in control of how you prepare for the change. Maybe you try to find another provider. But they are being transparent. The person writing the first version inadvertently pushed an opaque message using passive voice.
Passive voice sets the wrong tone of voice
Take the following example:
Your credit card application is being reviewed.
We’re reviewing your credit card application.
Notice how a passive voice-based sentence sounds more academic and formal. And comes across as less personal. This is why most consumer-facing companies’ “Tone of Voice” Guidelines encourage active voice. No customer wants to feel like they’re talking to a lawyer or a robot.
On that note, try reading your work aloud. It gives an idea of whether anyone would actually speak the words you’ve written. Think – would you say these words to a friend? People rarely speak in passive voice. It’s the domain of professors, politicians, lawyers. It can sound academic, formal, and detached. Not how you want your customer to feel about your organization.
Active voice helps you communicate more clearly and conveys trust
Take another look at the example above. The passive voice version brings up questions. Who is reviewing my application? It sounds almost sinister like we’re trying to hide something. The customer feels like something is being “done to” her without notice or consent – she is powerless. And suspicious. So if you’re doing this stuff, what else are you going to spring on me?
Passive sentences are also typically longer than active ones. And while it’s only a few more words per sentence, it makes a big difference if you add up a string of them. And we know that “when you write more, people understand less”. Research shows that when the average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%. The more words you use, the less likely it is that your customers will understand it. Or bother to read it.
And this is, partly, because people are busy. Poor communications add to our cognitive load. We don’t have time to extract the meaning out of passive sentences. Use active language, and make it obvious who’s doing what. Then you’re well on the road to a better customer experience.
How to kill passive voice in your writing
Of course, you should not eliminate passive voice completely. Sometimes it’s needed, perhaps because we don’t know the subject. For example, “the money was stolen”. We might not yet know who stole the money. Or you might use passive voice to make a statement. Maroon 5 probably intended something of the sort when they came up with She Will Be Loved. And there are plenty of cases of passive voice use for humor. Think of Mark Twain’s “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. When you know how to use it, it can be delightful.
So what level of passive voice should we aim for? We recommend keeping it at 4% or lower within one piece of content. This sounds very theoretical, and you might well wonder how you could even track such a thing. Luckily, there are solutions for businesses to manage this at scale. VT Insights (and VT Writer) allows you to scan your online and offline content, flagging the percentage of passive voice used in a content piece. It also flags other readability metrics, such as long sentence use and grade level. The boffins at VisibleThread also conduct research into language usage in sectors like Financial Services and Healthcare. You can see some of their work here.
Don’t hide behind your voice
Could I ask you to try something? Scan your next piece of customer content through VT Writer. It will highlight some passive voice sentences, and how you’ll go about changing them to active ones. But the exercise might uncover some gaps in your knowledge about the subject.
The sentence “Your application is being reviewed” might get you to thinking – who actually reviews these applications? How long should it take? What are they looking for? How could we hold our customer’s hand through the process?
Removing passive voice might seem like a small change in tone, but it can have a dramatic positive impact on clarity. If you root it out, you’ll be surprised how much your customers will perceive your brand as more trustworthy and clear speaking. It takes work. But it’s worth it.