Remember that high school English teacher who kept harping on passive voice? That professor who made you write a paper on the narrator’s perspective? That communications teacher who talked on and on about your “target audience”?
To some extent, what they were all yammering on about is Point of View. (I’m going to stop right here and admit that Point of View, in the world of literary criticism, means something a little different from what I’m talking about here. It’s all about who the narrator is and how wide or narrow his/her field of vision is. But Point of View is the most descriptive name I can think of for the phenomenon I’m about to describe. If you can think of a better word or phrase, do let me know.)
The point is, a good story can get buried in bad telling, and one surefire way to tell a story badly is to lose sight of who the story is really about. When you want to describe something about your organization, whether for a press release, grant proposal, or that “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers” application, your goal should be to emphasize why this thing you’re describing matters to the reader (your target audience). That means focusing on what or who this thing affects. And more often than not, that means an emphasis on people, not programs. They’re who your story’s about. It all comes down to Point of View.
For example, let’s say you want to describe your company’s executive leadership program for women. Here’s the kind of thing I’ve seen a lot in corporate materials:
The goal of Ice Tray International’s executive leadership program is to strengthen the development and retention of women. The program comprises leadership opportunities and assessments, executive coaching and skill-building. Training in executive presentations, networking and communication strategies is provided and participants are required to complete a professional development plan. Annual participation in the program is fifty.
Is there anything wrong with that paragraph? It’s grammatically correct (it even gets “comprise” right–a potential landmine word). It contains a certain amount of useful information. It’s (yawn) very professional, isn’t it?
If you define “professional” as dry and boring then yes, it is. But personally, I need to read a paragraph like that a few times over before I can fully take it in, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I have a thoroughly unscientific theory for why this is: we absorb information better if it forms a picture in our minds.
Think about a novel you enjoyed recently. Remember a scene. Do you recall the actual words you read in that scene? Maybe a line stands out for you, here or there, but by and large what you remember is the picture that formed in your mind as you read those words.
To make text digestible, whether it’s a piece of fiction or a corporate message, you need to turn it into something your reader can picture. What if the paragraph above read something like this, instead?
Each year, fifty Ice Tray employees participate in our executive leadership program, “You, Go, Woman!” Each participant works one-on-one with an executive coach to assess her skills, style and career goals and create a professional development plan. Participants also attend training in creating dynamic executive presentations, networking and effective communications.
This paragraph contains information nearly identical to that in the first paragraph, but what a difference! Is it easier to read? Do you get the information the first time around? Do you come away with a better sense of the impact this program is having on actual, living-and-breathing employees?
Is it any less professional?
Not only does the second paragraph tell the simple facts of this program in a more direct, hard-hitting manner, but it adds some important details. Now we know that the program is called “You, Go, Woman!” (Ok, not essential information, but it does humanize it a bit.) We know what the assessments cover. We know the meetings with coaches are one-on-one. In fact, the only thing missing from the second version—which uses five fewer words— is the goal of the program. And I submit that that goal would mean a whole lot more if it were stated in terms of results:
Since 2007, 250 women have completed You Go, Women. Turnover among these women has been 3% less than turnover among all women at Ice Tray during the same period, and promotion rates have been 23% higher.
Besides adding some colorful details, what else did I do to turn paragraph 1 into paragraph 2? For one thing, I got rid of the passive voice, replacing “training…is provided” with “participants…attend training,” and “participants are required to complete a professional development plan,” with “each participant works…with an executive coach…to create a professional development plan.”
There is nothing grammatically wrong with using passive voice. Yet consult nearly any style guide and you’ll be admonished to use it rarely. Why? I believe one reason is that passive voice can prevent your reader from forming a clear picture. By changing two phrases in the paragraph from passive to active voice, I changed the emphasis from the program to the people that benefit from it. And instead of having to picture a professional development plan (what would this be, exactly–a piece of paper?), you imagine an employee huddling with her coach to develop the plan.
Passive voice isn’t the only culprit in the first example, though. Sentences like “Annual participation in the program is fifty,” are about statistics; changed to “Each year, 50 Ice Tray employees participate in our program,” it became a sentence about people. Then, by using one of the sentences to hone in on each, individual employee, I humanized it even more. A picture of dozens of employees working with coaches is a vague picture, at best; a picture of a single individual working one-on-one with a coach is an image I can hold on to.
In short, by shifting the paragraph’s language from a focus on program details to a focus on the employees benefiting from the program—by shifting the Point of View—I humanized the facts and made them easier to absorb. And I made sure the reader’s attention would be on the benefits of the program, rather than the program, itself.
Are you getting tangled up in the essay portion of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies application? Trying to communicate a tough topic to funders or employees? Tell me what you’re struggling with and I’ll help you sort it through. Or, just hand it off to me and get on with the stuff you really want to do.