– Linda, speaking about her husband, Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman.
Playwright Arthur Miller won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for this 1949 drama, and he went on to write many other memorable works over a long career.
His plays and essays packed a punch. He wrote about ordinary people—common men and women who had fatal flaws as they wrestled with moral issues, family concerns and business challenges in a changing America.
As much as I’ve always admired Miller’s work, I’ve been disappointed that the signature quote from Death of a Salesman was a sentence in the passive voice.
Yes, the sentence structure fits Linda’s character, who’s rather passive.
However, the sentence is not an example of good writing or speaking that’s worth emulating, especially in today’s business world.
If you want to inspire yourself or others to act, you need to avoid passive voice and instead use active voice.
In other words, pay attention. Don’t think that attention must be paid.
Active voice is superior to passive. And it’s not just because our high school and college English teachers told us so in order to make our writing more lively and energetic.
According to neuroscientists, our brain is more clued in to action language. When we hear active verbs, we’re more inclined to pay attention, actively imagine something and make a commitment to act.
As Dr. Srinivasan S. Pillay writes in Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, language and actions are connected in the brain. Verbs may be more demanding for people to process than nouns; however, verbs tend to stimulate the brain to take action, especially if they’re active verbs.
What are the implications of this?
Take these five actions:
- When you talk to yourself, even if it’s quietly in your head, structure your sentences in active voice. That will help you move your ideas from concepts into action.
- Always use active voice when giving instructions or directions. For instance, say: “Review the document and send me your comments by Friday, end of business.” Don’t say: “Your comments need to get to me by Friday, end of business.”
- Also, use active voice when creating goals and talking about them. For example, a goal could be: “Build and transition to a new organization structure that supports Voice of the Customer.” That would be more action oriented than “Support Voice of the Customer by building and transitioning to a new organization structure.”
- If you ever draw a blank on good actions verbs, check out this list of 104 power verbs for ideas.
- Own up to mistakes. Say “I made a mistake.” or if appropriate, “We made a mistake.” rather than the common “Mistakes were made.”
By paying attention to your language and making a point to use action verbs, you improve your ability to bring yourself and others to action.
Are you willing to embrace the science instead of the art?