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Activating Your Active Voice

by Randy J. Harvey

Sentences should be like a woman's dress. Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting.
Randy Harvey with apologies to Anonymous

The human brain understands and processes direct, simple language quickly. The mind is structured to process patterns of speech quickly and efficiently. When sentences are constructed from, subject, verb, and object, the brain processes the meaning directly. However, if you change the order to object, verb, subject, the brain has to hold the object and verb in memory until the subject is identified. When the subject is identified the brain can construct the meaning. The “Subject, Verb, Object (“SVO”) construction is “Active Voice.” The “Object, Verb, Subject” (“OVS”) construction is the “Passive Voice.”

Let's look at examples:

Active Voice SVO
Mary picked flowers.    
subject verb object    
Passive Voice OVS 
Flowers were picked by Mary.
object verb subject
  B   B  

Both of these sentences mean the same thing. They communicate an image of Mary picking flowers.

The huge differences between the two sentences are:

  • The active voice sentence is easier to say;
  • It is said more quickly with fewer words; and
  • It does not require the brain to retain the object and verb (retention) before it can complete the mental image by including the subject.

In an active voice sentence the subject acts. In a passive voice sentence the subject is acted upon by something. Notice also in the passive voice sentence the writer had to add to “Be Verbs.” Perhaps you will recall from high school English that the “be verbs” are: is, are, am, was, were, been. These “be verbs” can be expressed in “tenses” related to the times when they occur: present, past, and future. There are other tenses as well be are beyond the purpose of our discussion here.

The passive voice is difficult to understand and obscures clear messages from speakers and writers. Unless you want to hide your meaning and obscure something you are trying to say, speak in the “active voice,” SVO. So what does this mean for speakers?

Speakers need to make every word count during their allotted speech time. Effective speakers do not waste words and they are acutely aware of their need to manage the images playing in their audience’s mind. If the audience has to hold objects and verbs in their mind until you give them the subject, they often do not hear your next sentence.

The more you use the passive voice the more lost your audience becomes—they are struggling to understand your words and miss your message.

When you speak using the active voice, the audience processes your words almost simultaneously as you speak allowing them to keep up with your message. The goal is not just to have them keep up with you. Your goal is to have them pondering the mental images you are creating during your speech and to visualize themselves in your speech. You want them to smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the bright colors, experience the emotion.

The passive voice detracts from these experiences because the brain has to diagnose the meaning of the words, put the puzzle together and then try to find a mental image that supports the message. Using the passive voice is like spilling hot coffee in your lap on an unfamiliar road: it forces the audience to focus on other things that the road you are laying out ahead of them.

See if you notice a difference:

Passive Voice Active Voice
Flowers were picked by a young girl. The young girl picked flowers.
The stranger’s presence was made known by a barking dog. A barking dog made known the stranger's presence.
To her Papa, the young girl ran for safety. The young girl ran to her Papa for safety.

Say the two examples out loud, or perhaps, record them and listen to them. Which one is easier to say? Which one is easier to understand? Which one allows you to see clear images in your mind’s eye of what is going on?

If you struggle with understanding the passive voice, think about how your audience reacts. Especially, as you keep talking they struggle to keep up and eventually give up and wait for your speech to be over.

Speak, write and present in the active voice and you'll see immediate and dramatic differences in how your audience reacts.

About the Author

Randy J. Harvey, Ph.D. is the Toastmasters 2004 World Champion of Public Speaking. He is a human resource professional, lawyer, educator, storyteller, speech coach, and award-winning speaker. Check out Randy's websites, www.randyjharvey.com and www.hrsmarts.com, for articles and products to advance your career.

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