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In general, business writing uses the active voice, where the sentence construction
is subject-verb-object. The reason that the active voice is preferred in
American business writing is because it is clear, direct, and emphatic, and it signals
energy and force. Here are some examples of the active voice:
I will complete phase four by March 1st.
The client must sign the approval for phase four by March 8th.
In contrast, the passive voice puts the object before the verb. As a result, it’s
not always easy for a reader to ascertain who is the subject and what is the object.
In other words, the passive voice is not clear or direct. Sometimes the result is
downright flabby writing. For example:
Phase four will be completed by March 1st. (This is unclear. We aren’t told
who will complete it.)
Approval must be signed for phase four by March 8th. (This is unclear too.
We aren’t told who must sign it.)
Approval for phase four must be signed by the client by March 8th. (Even
though this sentence states who must sign it, it’s too long and hard
to follow.)
When to Use the Passive Voice
So why use the passive voice when communicating negative messages? Children
and politicians know why instinctively. The passive voice makes it a little more
difficult to trace the action to the culprit. Witness the child’s answer to the ques-
tion “Where is your toy?” The child answers, “It got lost,” (not I lost it, mind
you). That is the genius of children. About politicians, the less said the better.
Sometimes it pays to be unclear. We aren’t condoning ducking responsibility
or passing the buck; that’s not what this discussion is about. What it is
about is taking responsibility without taking on the brunt of someone’s anger.
The occasional use of a passive construction in a negative message does seem to
take some of the fuel out of a fiery situation. Here are some examples of negative
or disagreeable messages constructed passively and actively:
The cost had to be raised. We had to raise the cost.
It isn’t possible to change the copy We can’t change the copy at
at this time and still stay this time and still stay within
within the budget. the budget.
The passive construction hints at forces at work beyond anyone’s control,
while the active construction leads the reader to wonder, “Maybe you couldn’t
find a better solution, but someone else might have been able.”
Because much of the writing you will be doing in these negative situations
requires quick action under duress, you might forget the central rule of all business
writing: keep your reader’s needs and expectations in mind. Yet, using your
client’s business language and focusing on your client’s goals are particularly
important strategies when writing (or calling, for that matter) to communicate
negative or disappointing news. Courtesy words, like please and thanks, go a long
way in creating client goodwill in this regard, but putting your reader first
requires more than the mechanical placement of certain words in your message.
You need to write with a sense of empathy, which means asking yourself how
you would react if you were the reader of the message you are writing.
Keep in mind that it’s usually possible to phrase your message in terms of
benefits to your client, even in negative message writing. Note the difference in
the following examples:
• The enclosed plans must be approved before we can proceed.
• So your project can proceed on schedule, we need you to approve the enclosed plans. The first example focuses on the designer’s need to get a signed approval and comes across a bit like a hostage situation. (That’s probably why the writer chose to use the passive voice—to soften the message.) The focus on the second example is on the client’s need to have his project completed, and placing the phrase that refers to that need first focuses more attention and importance on that client’s need. The second example literally mirrors the message “you, the client, come first,” at the same time that the message goes about meeting the designer’s needs to get signed approval before proceeding.