Passive or active?


February 10th, 2014

I used to edit other people’s writing. I remember one time editing a rather long, scientific article. The author came back to me and said I hadn’t done my job. Nothing had changed. I had changed a lot, he just hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t changed the meaning, or his message in any way. I showed him his original article and the edited version with ‘track changes’ (about the only good use for track changes that I’ve come across, but I digress). What had I done? I’d simply changed his passive voice writing into the active voice.

Without getting into a tedious grammar class, here’s what the passive voice looks like:

The moon was jumped over by the cow.

And in the active voice:

The cow jumped over the moon.

And why should you care? It’s about where you focus your attention. The active voice is often preferred in writing because it’s “more direct and vigorous” says William Strunk in the writer’s guide The Elements of Style. Strunk also adds that “when a sentence is made stronger [by using active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a byproduct of vigour.”

Vigour. Yes.

In meetings and workshops, in businesses and community groups, in families and relationships – what you focus on is important. Many of us default to focusing on what we want to say (content) rather than who we’re talking to (relationships). All those tedious powerpoint presentations full of bullet points and information is testament to our focus on content. We believe our knowledge, our argument, our graphs and statistics, will win over the hearts and minds of others. Sadly, climate change scientists discovered that this is not true the hard way. Health professionals, road safety experts, environmentalists, entrepeneurs with a good idea – all are discovering that facts and information are useful, but not enough. Shift your focus from the content to the people, using approaches to engage people with the content, with ideas and with each other, and you can close the gap between why you are meeting and its potential. Every meeting has the potential to be good. Some are even great.

Let’s make our meetings more direct and vigorous. Let’s focus on the people in the meeting. Our meetings will be shorter, more engaging and more productive. And who wouldn’t want that?

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