Learn about the benefits of using active voice over passive voice when storytelling. Understand the impact of active voice on creating a vivid and engaging story for the audience. Get tips for recognizing and using active voice effectively.
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- Over the years, I've noticed that the best storytellers
use active voice not passive voice.
But it's really difficult to notice this difference
when you're listening to stories with your ears
versus reading stories on the page.
We may be able to tell
that something is missing when we listen.
But we might not realize that the passive voice
is the weak ingredient in the story.
So let's look at the difference
so you can use active voice more consistently
to transport your listeners with great storytelling.
This is gonna be a bit technical, but it's worth it.
Active voice names the specific actor
or subject in the sentence first.
In other words, at the beginning of the sentence,
that subject or actor comes before the verb or the action.
For example, "He swung the baseball bat."
The word "He" is the subject or the actor in the sentence,
and the word "swung" is the action or the verb
that comes next.
This sounds best for two reasons.
One reason is that
English is a subject, verb, object language.
We call it an SVO language.
Not all languages follow this order or this pattern.
For example, as I understand it,
other languages like German and Japanese,
are not SVO languages.
But the default syntax for English is SVO.
So, as speakers, we will sound at our best
when we structure our sentences in SVO order.
The second reason active voice sounds best for stories
is that listeners can better visualize in their minds
who exactly is taking the action in the story,
because active voice provides specifics.
Here's some examples.
If I say, "I made mistakes."
It's obvious that I'm the person making the mistakes.
If I say, "England attacked the United Colonies."
You know that England is the country that attacked.
This may sound too obvious to you.
But let's look at the passive voice
and you'll see the difference.
Sentences worded in a passive voice
hide or camouflage the actor in the sentence.
Passive voice doesn't name the subject, in other words.
Instead of the active sentence,
"He swung the baseball bat."
We get a passive version that says,
"The baseball bat was swung."
Instead of an active version, "I made mistakes."
You get, "Mistakes were made."
Instead of "England attacked the United Colonies,"
you'd get, "The United Colonies were attacked."
In the passive versions of these sentences,
we've hidden the subject and led with the object,
which should be coming at the end of the sentence.
Even worse, we've added the word "was" to the verb,
which dilutes the action.
The word "was" is a classic passive verb of being
that shows no action whatsoever.
But let me ask you this.
Where is the actor or the subject of the sentence?
As we listen to passive sentences,
instead of a specific picture
that we see in our heads of a person taking action,
we end up asking ourselves who are we talking about again?
Who swung the bat?
Who made the mistake?
Who attacked the Colonies?
That's why passive voice doesn't usually help
with our storytelling skills.
When it comes to stories,
passive voice creates a visualization gap
in our listeners' minds.
The overall impact is that passive voice
weakens our thoughts and makes them sound generalized.
It makes our ideas sound vague.
When you blur out the specific,
listeners won't be able to see the picture
clearly in their minds.
As a result, your story won't carry them away.
And by the way,
if you are the actor in this story,
you should use the word "I."
You should be talking in the first person.
I know a lot of elementary
and some high school teachers who say,
"Don't use the word I in your stories."
That's usually bad advice when it comes to storytelling.
If you are the actor in this story,
then you can start your sentence with the word "I."
Now, that's a topic for a whole another video,
but I wanted to mention it
because it may be hurting your storytelling.
Third, an active voice gives your stories momentum
and a sense of progress on the journey.
The passive voice just signals the existence of an activity.
Active voice shows the activity
and communicates forward momentum.
Active voice drives good storytelling
with specific places, specific people, and specific actions.
Now, a quick caveat.
It's perfectly acceptable
to use passive voice some of the time.
Listeners will follow along
if you use passive voice here and there.
So don't you dare misquote me in the comment section.
I'm sure I'm using at least
some passive sentences in this video.
The key is to fight for an active voice whenever you can,
especially when it comes to key moments in your stories.
Now that you know the difference,
let's take a very short story that uses a passive voice,
and then we'll revise it and you'll see the difference.
Here's the passive version,
and I'm going to exaggerate a little bit
to make the point clear.
"On Father's Day, sushi was picked up from Wegmans.
Gathering downstairs, lunch was eaten by all three of us.
Lots of conversation took place.
As lunch was eaten, funny stories were told
about the old days.
The contentment of family was felt."
Like I said, I'm exaggerating.
I don't know anybody who uses that much passive voice.
Still, the passive version sounds impersonal and distant.
Even a few poorly placed passive sentences
can take all the pop out of a good story.
Let's look at the actively voice story,
to compare how easy it is to picture.
"On Father's Day, my wife drove to Wegmans to grab sushi.
She brought it home and called my son
to come downstairs for lunch.
All three of us ate together.
I talked about how much I enjoyed being a father,
and we all told funny stories about the old days.
I feel most content in life
when the three of us spend time together like this."
This is a quick ordinary story, nothing special.
It's not perfect.
But the second version sounds much better
because the active voice in each sentence
allows you to imagine
the actual people in this story who take action.
The cure for passive voice is simple.
Use active voice.
But that's not always easy.
So here are three tips to do that.
First, you have to recognize passive voice when you hear it.
If you're ever practicing your own stories
and they feel as if they lack that edge,
you might be using passive voice.
Be on the lookout for it.
Second, revise your wording so a clearly identified subject
or actor starts the sentence.
Anytime I have a troublesome story
in a presentation or in my writing,
I almost always notice I need to put this subject first.
As long as the subject comes first and the verb comes next,
the rest of the sentence, called the object,
will fall into place.
Third, here's a pro tip.
Look for action-oriented verbs to enhance your story.
You'll usually find a good action word in most sentences,
but they are sometimes lost among weaker words.
For example, the sentence,
"We were sailing by the lighthouse."
It's not bad, but it's not quite as action oriented
as, "We sailed by the lighthouse."
I would argue that you can picture "we sailed"
just a bit more clearly than "we were sailing,"
which is weakened by the word were,
which is not a word that creates an image.
So the tip is to look for action verbs
and don't dilute your action verbs
by surrounding them with less specific verbs
of being like "are, was, were,"
or other helping verbs like "have, has, had."
When possible, let the action verbs
stand alone immediately after the subject
and it'll sound a bit stronger.
Stories are fantastic ways to illustrate a point
in a conversation, in a meeting,
or when you're doing public speaking.
When you revise your stories with an active voice,
your audience will be able to visualize
and ultimately remember your stories for a long time.
Be sure to check out my free resources on my website
by following the link in the description below the video.
Until next time, thanks.
God bless. See you soon.
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