Use Active Voice to Improve Proposal Clarity and Credibility

On the APMP discussion board some years back, there was a conversation about active voice vs. passive voice. One discussion participant, Frank Karlin, illustrated well what it sounds like when you’re using the passive. I’m paraphrasing, but he suggested the next time you leave for work in the morning, try saying something like this:

“You are loved, and will be seen tonight.”

I laughed out loud when I read this, and I can almost hear the startled response: “Wait! I am loved? By whom? And who’s going to see me tonight? Come back here and explain yourself!”

We’ve all been taught to write in active voice, and this humorous example clarifies why. Passively written sentences are squirrely and unclear. They’re ambiguous. They’re especially useful when you’re trying to not say something clearly.

Active voice, in contrast, has two advantages: clarity and credibility.

Active voice advantage #1: clarity

Sentences written in the active voice are clear. Their construction is straight forward, not ambiguous, and generally easier to understand. They say things like, “I love you,” not, “you are loved.” With the active voice, you know it’s me who loves you. With the passive, you’re just guessing who’s doing the loving.

Active voice advantage #2: credibility

Clarity is important, and by itself, justifies using active voice. Still, there is one more thing that is especially important within the context of writing proposals; people who write in active voice sound more credible. And because they SOUND more credible, they ARE more credible—if only in the mind of the reader.

Sentences written in active voice don’t equivocate; they don’t say things like, “You are loved,” where they fail to say who you are loved by. Those kinds of sentences make it sound like you’re hiding something, or at least you’re not confident enough to say what you really think or feel. Active voice is more credible because it takes a stand, “I love you.” There’s no equivocating on what you’re actually saying. There’s no mitigating a fact you state. There’s no waffling.

Sentences written in passive voice make it sound like you’re hiding something, or at least you’re not confident enough to say what you really think or feel.

This idea of credibility is so important because your perceived credibility and the buyer’s perception of risk are inextricably linked. Proposals exist within the context of a sales transaction, and there is almost always some perception of risk in a sales transaction. You’re trying to convince someone to choose your product or service that they will use in some strategic or mission critical function. This in itself is risky. You’re also trying to convince them to part with their money. Both of these things contribute to a buyer’s perception of risk.

No one will adopt your solution, or part with their money, if they do not perceive you as credible. The less credibility you have, the greater sense of risk they have, and the less likely you are to make a sale. Conversely, the more credible you are, the less risk they perceive, the more likely you are to make a sale.

Active voice will not, by itself, make you credible or your writing clear. But writing in the active voice will contribute to your efforts to write clearly and establish yourself and your company as being credible.

David Seibert is a professional salesperson and consultant for businesses that respond to formal procurements in non-federal markets. Dave publishes a comprehensive curriculum of online, self-paced proposal training classes, delivers onsite and online proposal training programs for dedicated proposal teams, and provides proposal and business development consulting services for businesses that want to improve their win rates. 

Dave is founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses, A/E/C firms, schools, and to state and local governments. Dave authored the popular proposal book, Proposal Best Practices, is active with the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), and is a member of the APMP Speakers Bureau. You can contact Dave at [email protected].

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