Yes, passive voice does have a place in business copy

Other than being known for our sharp wit and dashing good looks, us content writers have something of a reputation for being pretty dry when it comes to tone of voice and grammar standards. That is to say, we’re word nerds. 

But many of these seemingly inconsequential writing rules can in fact have a profound impact on how your business is perceived by your customers and the wider industry, so it’s worth paying attention when you can stomach it. The choice between active and passive voice is a prime example. 

For some, it’s a long-forgotten topic from English lessons, but for others it’s a constant gripe as they wrestle with tone of voice in their press releases, web copy, blog posts and articles. It’s a stylistic decision that can have a radical impact on how your copy is received. 

Most are taught that when writing anything about their business, an ‘active’ tone is a gold standard and should be used at all times. Edits from senior staff with ‘PASSIVE’ written in red are not uncommon. But the reality is far more nuanced, with passive voice having an integral role to play in building better business content. 

Given the strength of opinions on the matter, let’s explore these nuances, while highlighting best practices in thought leadership and company announcements.

Understanding active and passive voice

First, a quick primer for the uninitiated, or those who’ve not thought about active and passive voice since they were left sitting in a classroom scratching their heads.

Active voice: In an active sentence, the subject performs the action. This structure is direct, and as a result is often seen as more engaging for readers. For example:

  • “The team [subject] launched [action] the new app [object].”
  • “Our company [subject] improved [action] customer satisfaction [object].”

Passive voice: In a passive sentence, the action is performed upon the subject. This often results in wordier and less dynamic sentences, but can be useful when writing in a more wistful, ‘storytelling’ tone. For example:

  • “The new app [object] was launched [action] by the team [subject].”
  • “Customer satisfaction [object] was improved [action] by our company [subject].”

A trick to spot the difference is that active voice is usually shorter, and the subject usually comes first in the sentence. Passive voice often uses the form of the verb ‘be’, such as ‘was’ or ‘is’ or ‘has been’, and usually ends up in the past tense as a result.

Why active voice is often preferred in business communications

It’s already exceptionally difficult to capture the attention of journalists with a press release, or of prospective customers with website copy, so the more direct tone of active voice can help create a sense of urgency and dynamism that is more likely to keep them reading. 

Business readers appreciate clarity, especially when processing dense or technical information, and retention figures drop rapidly when audiences see long-winded, overly wordy copy. Active voice makes your writing more engaging, and helps create a sense of immediacy and action, which can be more compelling. Conversely, passive voice can tire the reader as they attempt to figure out who exactly is doing what in a needlessly complex sentence.

Crucially, using active voice helps emphasise an actor’s responsibility, often essential in business contexts. It unambiguously highlights what a company is planning or announcing, making it easier for readers to understand the dynamics at play. 

Why passive voice still has a role to play

That said, passive voice still has its place. Companies want their copy to feel current and impactful, but there’s many situations where it’s handy to avoid this inherent directness, or to remove mention of an actor entirely. 

For example, if a business wants to specifically highlight the outcome of a strategy or campaign: “The report was completed on time” focuses on results, rather than getting bogged down with who actually worked on it.

And just as too many passive sentences can tire a reader, so can the constant dynamism of writing entirely in an active voice. Readers appreciate a little variety, especially in longer texts.

When working on thought leadership, or trying to evoke a more storied feel when discussing, say, how a company was founded, it can often be better to avoid a direct call to action and be more implicative. “Our company was founded with a simple goal, to help our customers achieve xyz” can help readers understand your mission and empathise with you as people, without feeling as though they’re being constantly sold to.

Passive can also be used to maintain a more objective tone. “Mistakes were made” can be a tactful way to acknowledge an error, without pointing fingers at any parties in particular. When speaking about larger company announcements, it may be more diplomatic to speak broadly about a new overarching corporate strategy, rallying behind something greater than the decision made by the board or a specific individual.

Striking the right balance

As with anything in business, the key to effective communication is to strike the right balance. While active voice should dominate your copy when you need to drive engagement, passive voice can be strategically sprinkled in when a ‘softer sell’ is needed.

Before writing, determine what it is you want to emphasise—the actor or the action. This will guide your choice of voice. Keep in mind this emphasis during the editing process, carefully reviewing sentences while looking for opportunities to convert passive voice to active voice without losing meaning or clarity. 

Ultimately your core message should always be in active voice, to maximise its impact, but passive can help create a more ‘storytelling’ feel. By understanding and skillfully applying both active and passive to your writing, you can create compelling, clear and impactful business copy that is sure to shine.

Written by Elliot Gardner

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