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This post was written on 22 Sep 2011 and is filed under Uncategorized.






Power Bottoms – Strategic Use of the Passive Voice


The active voice gets all the love. Strunk and White practically had an orgasm over it.

Good writers wield it like the powerful tool it is. I even wrote about it recently in this post on the active voice in copywriting. Now, I’m going to let you in on a secret: the passive voice is a silent weapon.

Writers take charge with the active voice, but sometimes it’s strategic not to shout out every detail. Carefully choosing when to be active and when to be passive enables you to create contrast. It’s hard to stand out when the volume is always blasting.

Singers apply this principle to great effect, taking you on a journey of peaks and valleys. Sure, some of them might be able to belt out every note, but then you wouldn’t feel the intensity like you do when singers take the song to the next level.

Aside from manipulating the energy level of copy for emotional effect, sometimes it can be beneficial to de-emphasize certain details.

Get strategic. Three ways to boost your copy with selective use of the passive voice:

 

1. Talk about Competitors

Castrate your competition by using passive voice constructions when you refer to them. Save the power for yourself. It’s a subtle technique, but that’s exactly the point. You’re not trashing them. Your readers probably won’t notice the grammatical offensive you took. But they will feel it. The best copywriting persuades without calling attention to its persuasion techniques.

 

2. Minimize Unpleasant Details

The passive voice is the linguistic equivalent of small print. Sometimes, for legal or practical reasons, you need to communicate details that are not the rosiest. Terms and conditions, side effects, exclusions, etc. These details don’t even have to be negative per se, but why shout about hotel check-out procedures, for example? Keep the active voice for the glory of the things you want to draw attention to.

 

3. Make Your Brand an Agent of Change

Your copy is an emotional landscape. Want to show your brand off as an agent of change? Describe a scenario of life before your brand and use only passive voice sentences. Then have your brand emerge as the champion, ramping up the energy levels with the active voice and the punch of action verbs.

 

These are my big three. If you have any more passive voice tactics, feel free to share in the comments below.

 

4 Comments

  1. Lorraine
    October 5, 2011

    The passive voice is usually given the bum’s rush by both creative and commercial writers. How refreshing to see someone stand up for the underdog.

    I’ve been onto #2 for some time. I use an inactive voice in corporate communications when I have to relay unpleasant info–layoffs, pay freezes, etc. Another trick: Bury the bad news in the middle of the document.

    Looking forward to experimenting with #1 and #3!

    • B. Ligerent
      October 5, 2011

      Great advice on burying the bad news!

      The “architecture” of a message is so important. Hook them with something positive. Leave them with a positive … even better if it’s a positive push in the right direction.

  2. the lang cat
    November 15, 2011

    Great post. Most of the corporate comms I take pleasure in setting fire to is lacked with weak passives. I think folk think if they use them it’ll throw critics off the scent. “Wait a minute, I thought those tossers in Marketing had written this, but now I see the passive voice I’m not so sure. Look! A squirrel!” But maybe they do have their place after all…

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