It Was Done in the Study with the Revolver by Colonel Mustard

Photo by Dawn Beattie licensed under Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

On the war between active and passive voice in business writing

At the risk of demeaning editors everywhere, I have a confession to make—a good amount of what I do when I work on a manuscript amounts to rearranging the furniture in a mansion (another good chunk is pruning the hedges, which we’ll cover in another post). Although it’s common—if not preferred—in business and academic communication to write primarily in the passive voice (a thorough explanation of which can be found here), effective writing requires a careful look at who’s doing what to whom and how often.

It’s reasonable to think that if something is common in certain types of writing, there’s a reason for it—and that’s the case here, too. With respect to business writing, the primary virtue of the passive voice is the tone of objectivity and authority that it carries. A sentence written in the passive voice is simply not open to debate—the study was conducted; the results were tabulated. Things just are. Naturally, this is a desirable impression to give when one is writing about one’s area of expertise or the value of one’s experience. However, writing entirely (or even mostly) in the passive voice carries other consequences, as well.

False Modesty or Passing the Buck?

First, an article written in the passive voice has no actors. No one is responsible for the events being described. Things just happen. In the same way that the passive voice carries authority, it also removes responsibility—which can be exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to convey. After all, if you didn’t have anything to do with the wonderful outcome you’re describing, why are you describing it? Are you just an awe-struck observer? Probably not.

Writing in the active voice allows you to take ownership of your part in the story you’re telling—and make no mistake, you are telling a story (see also “How to Find a Story in Data” by Ted Cuzillo). So rather than passively stating that “operational savings of 40% were realized by the accounting department,” you can take a proud step forward by declaring, “the accounting department cut 40% from its operating budget.”

Efficiency of Language is Efficiency of Thought

A secondary, but more reader-friendly reason to switch to active voice is that an active-voice sentence is much more easily understood than a passive one. Current research is somewhat sketchy, but there’s a basis for the idea that because the active voice puts the actor ahead of the action, it requires less cognitive work to understand an active sentence than a passive one. Active-voice sentences tend to use fewer words, as well, which is a useful consideration for writing that aims to present complex ideas to a wide audience—even if it’s an audience of experts.

It’s also worth noting that when learning a foreign language, students almost always learn the active voice first. Therefore, if your target audience includes nonnative speakers, you will be doing yourself a great service by writing in the active voice as much as possible.

In All Things, Balance

Ultimately, though, the goal isn’t to eradicate the passive voice from business writing. An article written all in the active voice can wind up sounding like a glorified “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” paper. Rather, the goal is to preserve its effectiveness as a rhetorical device and increase its power to give added weight to specific ideas or information in your writing.

Here’s an admittedly simple example:

Version 1
“The study was visited by Colonel Mustard. The revolver was used by him. The noise that followed was terrible.”

Version 2
“Colonel Mustard visited the study. He used the revolver. The noise that followed was terrible.”

Of course, writing is always a matter of taste, but I know which version I prefer. So before you send that article off into the world, take one more look through and see if there is anywhere that a simple swap from passive to active voice can help reinforce your intention. Whether your goal is to solve a murder or to sell a server, effective writing is one of the surest paths to getting there.

Why a Well-Organized Article Is the Best Thing on Earth

Photo by Peter Zoon https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterzen/

Okay, I admit it—blatant hyperbole is not exactly fitting for professional writing. In my defense, we’re in the midst of an editorial cycle for the next issue of the Business Intelligence Journal, so the special joy of reading a clean, concise, and—above all—well-organized article is especially relevant. With that in mind….

Telling Stories About Storytelling

Storytelling is big these days—we publish about data storytelling, start-up incubators advise entrepreneurs on the importance of their organizational story, and ongoing events like The Moth reassure everyone that they have a story to tell. That’s great. Everyone loves a good story. Here’s why that matters:

  1. Your article must have a story to tell.
  2. Your article must be written in a way that tells that story.

Your Story to Tell

No one sits down to write an article unless they have something they want to say. Obvious when written just that way, but sometimes elusive when sitting at the keyboard. So absolute Step 1 is to Know Your Story. To put it another way, “what’s your point?”

A good story for an article can be written in a single sentence that should fit comfortably on a 3×3 Post-It note—maybe an index card. No more. If it doesn’t fit, it’s too big a topic. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to flesh out your point with side points and other writerly flourishes. It just means that your point—your story—should be that clear and concise. For example, here’s a once-sentence story from a recent Journal article:

This is how we use social media methods to provide sales analytics and why.

That’s it. Everything in the article relates to that one sentence. It would fit on that Post-It with room to spare. That’s how well you should know why you’re writing your article.

How to Tell Your Story

Many, many years ago, I took a class where I learned two things:

  1. A plot is “a series of events in a particular order for a reason.”
  2. A story without a plot isn’t a story.

Once you’ve got your one-sentence story, you’ve automatically got your plot. Your plot is whatever series of events allows you to tell your story—which, as we discussed, is the reason you are writing your article.

There are many tried-and-true approaches to plotting, most of which can be found by a quick web search. This one is my favorite:

This is what it was like. This is what we did. This is how it got better.

An alternate version of the same story is:

This is what it was like. This is what we should have done.
This is how it got worse.

Naturally, the first variant is a bit more optimistic, but they’re equally instructional.

A few other variations are:

This is your problem. This is our solution.
This is the proof that it is the solution.

This is the situation. This is what I did.
If I knew then what I know now…

You get the idea. In all of these examples, the first sentence of the plot is your Post-It note reason for writing. The second and third sentences are whatever supporting information you need to fill in those parts of the plot. As you write—and especially as you edit—you should be checking every sentence to make sure that it is (A) part of the story (meaning directly related to your reason for writing), and (B) part of the plot (meaning directly related to one of the sentences in your chosen plot variation). Anything that doesn’t meet both A and B is deleted.

Of course, everything is easy once you know how it’s done, right? Hopefully, now it will be easy for you.

Mastering the Three C’s of Content Marketing

https://www.flickr.com/photos/florianric/7263382550/sizes/h/
Used by permission of Florian Richter.

 

In more than 20 years in publishing, I’ve worn quite a few titles—copywriter, art director, production manager, managing editor. Content marketer is more than just another title, though.

It’s an evolutionary shift.

Until now, we could safely specialize in the one or two things we did well because there was someone else to tend to the rest. The direct mail team could be happy with their 3% bump in conversions because the falling event sales were someone else’s problem. The corporate sponsorship team didn’t mind that they were sending duplicate campaigns to the same people as the education team because as long as they got the ROI, it was all the same to them.

Now, we’re in the Age of Content and a provincial attitude like that won’t cut it. So here are my three C’s of content marketing—the attitudes that will prime you for content marketing success—as well as examples of tools to enable them.

Curiosity

With the rapid evolution of the role and the constantly shifting environment we have to keep pace with, content marketers are often counted on to be the ones with the answer—no matter what the question is.

For a content marketer,
being curious is Job #1.

If you’ve come to content marketing from the creation side, this is most likely already deep in your DNA. Most creatives are at least partly driven by a strong interest in the world and in seeing what’s out there. This is especially true for those from a journalism background. For everyone else, this may require a little work. More than in marketing other products, casting a wide net for ideas and influences to promote your content is a necessity. That means aggregation and curation.

I rely on an old school standby for these—the feed reader. Based on their overall user experience (especially on mobile), there are only two that I would recommend:

Feedly

Feedly was the great savior when Google discontinued Reader in 2013. Thanks to an amazingly simple import feature, users were able to pick up where they left off almost without a hitch. Same logins, same feeds, zero effort.

Flipboard

Coming on the scene in 2010, Flipboard took a similar approach to Feedly, but with a slightly fancier interface. Nominally a “build your own magazine” product, its reputation is for innovative design rather than breakthrough functions. Being a default app on Samsung phones of a particular generation definitely helped spread its fame.

As I said, they’re similar. The difference is in discovery. Flipboard provides more heavily curated sources, where Feedly offers easier access to sources off the beaten path. Since our goal is to cast a wide net, I give it to Feedly on points.

Craft

It’s almost a content developer party game by now to ask someone whether creating good content is an Art or a Science and see where they land. (I believe Science has the edge currently, but that may be more about defending our budgets against the ROI police than actual conviction).

The problem is, neither is correct.

Creating good content is the craft of making
science look like art.

It is critical that you understand, accept, and internalize this definition. Otherwise, you will likely place too much emphasis on either Art or Science and find yourself in one of two failing positions.

Placing too much emphasis on Art is what leads people to discount the data and insist on their own way against all known best practices. It’s for the Mad Men types who are more interested in “winning” than in building relationships through content.

Placing too much emphasis on Science, though, gives us things like spam, pop-ups, and compulsive listicle making. They work—but only for a little while and only for some things.

Craftsmanship is a wholly different mindset. Doug Powell’s definition captures it well.

A craftsman possesses both knowledge of the work necessary to produce excellence and the attention to detail necessary to recognize it from the beginning to the end of his or her work.

My examples only include one of the much-hyped analytics-based products that so many content marketers swear by. I’ve chosen to skip most of those for two reasons:

  1. They cost a ton of money and it’s already an uphill climb to get and keep a content marketing budget.
  2. They might take you from good to great, but they won’t do anything for you if you haven’t gotten to good yet. Baby steps, folks. Baby steps.
Advanced Marketing Institute’s Headline Analyzer

This site is a simultaneous pat on the back and kick in the pants. It hasn’t been updated in ages, so it’s possible the rating algorithms are stale, but as far as I can see a high score is still meaningful (the title of this post went through a few rounds there). This would also work well in tandem with Google’s Keyword Planner.

Buzzsumo

Buzzsumo is the latest addition to my toolkit and probably the most likely to appear in someone else’s list. Unfortunately, it’s $1,300 a year and I don’t have the budget for that. However, it’s handy connections to Twitter and LinkedIn make even the 14-day free trial worthwhile, even if just to build your network. A quick dip into the content analysis tools will give you some really good ideas to work with, as well.

A note about Trendspottr and similar predictive analytics products: use with care. Trying to time the market doesn’t work unless you’re a hedgefund’s supercomputer. These tools may tilt the field a little, but not much.

Which leads me to….

Courage

The fact that we’re now in the era of data-driven marketing does not mean that everything you knew goes out the window, nor does it mean that data never lies. Content marketing as a term may be 20 years old, but content marketing as a dedicated business practice is much, much younger.

Here’s an especially apt quote from William Goldman about the original content marketers—Hollywood:

Nobody knows anything. … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

It’s okay to trust your gut sometimes.