Forget the political spin – use the active voice

Politicians are not exactly renowned for giving you the straight facts. Their reputation is one of evasiveness and persuasiveness, mixed with a healthy dollop of self interest to top things off.

But recently I’ve noticed more and more examples of how politicians achieve this ability to evade the question. They, or their creative spin doctors and numerous PR people, are masters of the ‘passive voice’. What do I mean by passive?

Active versus the passive voice

The ‘active voice’ makes it being very clear who’s carrying out the action; for example, ‘I have been wrongly claiming expenses for my second home’. It’s abundantly clear *who* claimed the expenses – the person who’s speaking.

The passive voice is the opposite of this; for example, ‘It’s clear that wrongdoing has been carried out with regards to expenses’. Do you see the difference? In the active voice there’s an admission of blame – the subject carried out the wrongdoing. In the passive voice, we know that wrongdoing has happened, but there’s no clue who did it. It absolves the speaker of any blame or responsibility because there’s no subject in the sentence. Rather sly, eh!

Listen to a politician next time the news is on. They use these passive tone continually. They talk of facts, figures, statistics, but they very rarely tell you what *they* have actually done or what their personal, well-held opinion is on any given topic. They’ll give you their party’s opinion, sometimes over and over again on repeat, but getting a personal opinion or admission out of a politician is a rare occurrence.

And it’s this kind of evasive, slippery behaviour that’s given politicians the reputation they have. In a nutshell, we – the electorate – don’t believe a word they say. We think they’re untrustworthy and that they continually avoid the truth. And a large part of this is down to their use of the passive voice.

Using the active voice

When you write for business, or the public sector, one of the key things you want your audience to believe is that you’re being honest with them. You want to come across as a trusted source of information and you want people to believe you. So, looking at how negatively we view politicians, you can see how using the passive voice in your writing is probably not the best idea. If you try to lean towards the active voice, you’ll get a much better reaction from your audience.

So if you say ‘We’ll call you to sort out the problem we’ve been having with our deliveries’ that’s going to be received better than ‘Problems have been occurring with the delivery system – this will be rectified’. One sounds personal, honest and admits that there’s been a problem with your deliveries. The other sounds distant, corporate and takes no blame for the problem. Take your pick – which of those two options would you choose?

I’m a big fan of the active voice. And not just because of its perceived honesty. It’s also much easier to write. It’s much closer to how we actually speak in everyday conversation, so it takes far less effort to find the right words, the right structure and the right tone. The political, corporate passive voice requires a whole lot more work; you’ve got to put in a whole lot of effort to restructure your message outside of the usual framework of normal, everyday speech. And it’s effort that is pretty much wasted when you realise that the overall impact just isn’t as good as a more personal approach.

So, the choice is yours. But, for me, it’s the active tone of voice every time.

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