Presenting and Teaching

Presenting Tip #4: Avoid the Passive Voice

8 Oct 2018  

All too many presentations lack punch. The document becomes a dense collection of facts with a plodding tone and structure. This does not make the recommendation interesting or compelling. It simply doesn’t work well.

There are many steps to creating a powerful presentation: be clear on the recommendation, include an executive summary, find the story, create simple pages and write headlines to name just a few. My new book How to Wash a Chicken is full of different techniques and recommendations.

One technique, however, is often overlooked: avoiding the passive voice.

Passive Voice

When I was in school, I was always puzzled when teachers would write on my papers “Avoid the passive,” or sometimes just “passive!” I was never quite sure what they meant.

So let me start by explaining. The technical definition of passive writing, according to Wikipedia, is: “The noun or noun phrase that would be the object of a corresponding active sentence (such as “Our troops defeated the enemy”) appears as the subject of a sentence or clause in the passive voice (“The enemy was defeated by our troops”).”

Put another way, in a passive sentence the subject often isn’t entirely clear. Here are examples of typical passive sentences one might see in a presentation:

  • The new product was launched in April, 2018
  • Prices were increased by 18%.
  • A new segment was grown over the past several years.
  • The brands were revitalized.

The Problem

There are all sort of problems with the passive voice in a business presentation. One is that a passive sentence is not very specific. If you say, “A new product was launched,” you aren’t stating who launched the new product. Was it our company? A competitor? Which one?

Passive writing is also flat. A sentence like, “Trends were identified in the market,” is just dull. There is no life.

Sentences with a passive structure also can suggest a lack of ownership. When you say, “The new product will be launched,” you are distancing yourself from the matter. Who is going to launch it?

Passive can be particularly problematic when used to present poor business results. When an executive says, “The profit target was missed,” they are clearly dodging responsibility. Who missed the target? A manager who presents bad news without taking ownership is not positioned well for career longevity.

Remember, Winston Churchill didn’t use the passive voice when rallying the British to fight Hitler. He did not say, “The battle will be fought in France and on the seas and oceans. Our island will be defended, whatever the cost may be. The battle shall be fought on beaches…and surrender will never be offered.”

Instead he declared, “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….”

Fixing the Issue

People don’t usually speak in the passive voice. When someone asks you about your weekend, you don’t usually say, “A festive weekend was enjoyed. A movie was seen on Friday night by us.” You say instead, “I had a festive weekend. I went to a movie Friday night.”

When it comes time to write, however, the passive voice appears. Business presentations seem particularly favorable areas, leading to dull statements like “Annual goals were developed” and “Several objective have been met.”

Here are three ways to fix the problem.

  • Write sentences and start with the subject. If you begin with the subject, the actor, you will naturally write in an active fashion.
  • Review all of your writing and look for passive language. When you see a passive statement make it active. An editor can help with this process.
    • Turn: “The profit target was met” into “We met the profit target.”
    • Turn: “Prices were increased” into “Our competitor raised prices.”
    • Turn: “The new product will be launched“ into “We will launch the new product.”
  • Use passive phrases only when you need to. If you are deliberately obscuring ownership of an idea, for example, you can write “A new idea was presented.” These are fairly rare occasions.

When you stop using the passive voice, your presentations will be livelier, more engaging and more dramatic.

For more tips on creating and delivering powerful business presentations, get a copy of my new book, How to Wash a Chicken

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1 Response

  1. emita Hill says:

    So true. Grace Branham would have approved of your writing.

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