When you’re writing a business letter, especially to colleagues or other people in your field, you may tend to write in a very dry, jargon-filled manner. Though you may not be able to avoid the jargon trap in this case, there is another trap that you can jump over like a track and field star: passive voice.
Let’s face it. Business letters aren’t the most exciting thing in the world to read. This doesn’t mean they can’t be engaging, however. Passive voice significantly reduces a reader’s level of engagement, unless, of course, it is custom in your field to write this way, e.g., scientific reports. But for business, you should always aim to write in an active voice.
The Difference Between Active and Passive Voice
When you write in active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. However, when you write a sentence in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. There’s an immediate disconnect when your reader isn’t able to identify with the subject (who you have made secondary).
Shifting focus onto the subject prompts the reader to identify with and possibly carry out whatever you may have requested of them.
A clear distinction between the two can largely determine the success of your business, especially when you’re writing instructions. Let’s take a quick look at active and passive verbiage.
Active: The student believes that teachers must give tests once a year.
Passive: It is believed by the student that tests must be given once a year by teachers.
As you can see from above, the active voice is shorter and places more attention towards the subject (student).
As you’re reading any passage or phrase, a greater part of your concentration is spent trying to interpret its meaning. If, for several possible reasons, you can’t identify with the text, you immediately lose interest. Sadly, this happens in everyday business and goes uncorrected.
This business passage is completely written in the passive voice:
The old building was inspected and was found to have cracks across six floors. The decision was made to repair the floors, and a contractor was engaged. After the work was completed, the cracks were repaired.
The passage below has been revised and written in the active voice:
The inspector examined the old building and discovered cracks across six floors. The surveying manager decided to repair the three cracks and had the contracting department engage a contractor. After the contractor completed the task, the cracks were restored.
When you look at the above sentences, the first one is vague and leaves out far more details about the subjects. In the second sentence, you can establish what roles were played by the subjects.
The passive voice tends to obscure the true meaning of a sentence. Sentences that use passive speech are wordier and can lead to reader confusion. Because businesses run on precious commodities like time and money, yours must avoid this confusion.
How to Set Yourself Up for Active Voice
It’s okay; everyone is guilty of using passive voice. The key now is to learn how to limit your passive voice and start using a more active voice! Sometimes, the best trick is to simplify what you’re trying to say. Don’t write to impress, write to communicate.
Avoid Pretentious Words
If your reader has to Google each word and term you’re using, they’re going to feel alienated and annoyed. It’d serve you well to avoid jargon and academic phrases. When writing to customers, you should always try to keep it natural and direct.
Strive to create an easy-to-read copy. You’d be surprised how much mail goes to spam each day, if you ask me, it’s too much! As of March 2020, 45.3% of all emails were spam. Your emails shouldn’t be too complicated and passive. So, always remember to make short sentences a trusted guide.
Be the Reader as You Write
Think of your reader when you write your business letter. This will guide you when putting out content.
Why Changing From Passive Voice to Active Voice Is the Smart Move
Using active voice allows individuals or companies to claim the spotlight. It holds employees accountable for their actions. If your business is experiencing a positive boom because of certain individuals, then gosh darn it, hold them responsible for their achievements! It builds trust, not only in the business but in the employees, as well.
It’s Easier to Read Formal Documents with Active Voice
The world of business is growing, and people rely on the internet more and more to conduct business. Passive, difficult-to-read letters (which often require an expert to break down) pose a barrier to effective communication. Eye strain on paper is one thing; eye strain on a computer while trying to translate business news is infuriating. You can write formal letters and still maintain interest and clarity with an active voice.
Convenience is Key
Increasingly, people are choosing convenience. Now, if you’re going to stick to rigid methods of communication in your business, then you’re good as gone! If your client can’t sign a certain agreement you sent them (via email) because of imprecise and passive verbiage, then you’re losing business by the minute.
Less is More, So Make it Count
People read in bites, so using active voice gives skimmers the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a situation effectively. If you send out a business letter in a fast-paced corporation, chances are that not everyone is going to have time to read every last word you write. Don’t make them search for clues; be active.
If your business uses limited space text platforms, like Twitter, this is especially important. Active voice will help you make every word count and get your point across clearly.
When Not to Use Active Voice
However, you can’t always rely on active verbiage for all your business letters. The active voice is not always the most appropriate. For instance:
- When you must communicate bad news.
- When you’re unable to name a specific actor in a given situation.
- Prefer to emphasize what is done rather than who is doing it.
As you go about your daily emailing, always remember:
- Use short sentences and more focus on the subject.
- You shouldn’t use pretentious words as they alienate the reader.
These two small bits of advice will enhance your active voice game, for sure.