passive-voiceThe business world is not renowned for the crispness of its copywriting, but there are some simple techniques we can learn to sharpen up both our own business writing and other people’s.

Written communication is a vital part of virtually all business marketing, online or offline. Whether it is a website, video clip, brochure or newsletter, it all comes down to words on a page.

So it is ironic that for an industry where words play such a vital role in meeting client needs – from legal advice to property consultancy to financial information – professional services in particular has such a reputation for boring, long-winded writing.

Confident business copywriting

A lot of it comes down to confidence and habit. Professional services has for so long been  characterised by wordiness and bluster, it is incredibly easy to pick up bad habits. It takes a certain confidence to fight back against the fog of verbosity, rather than simply following the accepted – and often expected – industry norms.

There are a few relatively simple techniques, however, that can help make  even the most pompous copywriting shorter, friendlier and more readable.

Active business copywriting

One of the main techniques either for improving your own copywriting or when editing somebody else’s, is to prefer the active voice to the passive voice. But what exactly does that mean? And what difference does it make?

Copywriting in the active voice, as the name suggests, is all about action. It is about structuring your sentences so they focus on the action that is occurring; the thing doing the action rather than the thing that action is happening to.

The active voice is the basic sentence structure of English: x does y to z, or subject > verb > object.

For example:

  • The boy [subject] kicked [verb] the ball [object].
  • The corporate finance team [subject] increased [verb] its turnover [object] by 20 percent.
  • The senior partner [subject] announced [verb] several lateral hires [object].

Writing in the active voice is generally a good thing. Copywriting that is active tends to be more engaging, more direct and easier to follow. You get the sense of movement and action – the  boy kicking the ball, the corporate finance team increasing its turnover or the senior partner announcing the new lateral hires.

Avoid passive business copywriting

In the passive voice on the other hand, the sentence structure is reversed so the object of the statement comes first, instead of the subject. The focus of the sentence is therefore on the recipient of  the action, rather than the thing doing the action, like this:

  • The ball was kicked by the boy.
  • Turnover was increased by 20 percent by the corporate finance team.
  • Several lateral hires were announced by the senior partner.

It is a subtle but very noticeable difference, and it has a big effect on our copywriting. The focus is on the ball, just sitting there until it is kicked, rather than on the boy running up to give it a whack. There is not the same feeling of movement. As the name suggests, the passive voice is more static, more indirect, and has a whiff of brown-trousered bureaucracy about it.

As well as being more dynamic and engaging, copywriting in the active voice is more concise, too. In the examples above, the active versions use between 20% and 30% fewer words than the passive constructions – and more concise business writing is a worthy aim in itself.