5 ways to pay attention–to your verbs

by | Dec 30, 2013 | Blog | 13 comments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

— 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. If you ever draw a blank on good actions verbs, check out this list of 104 power verbs for ideas.
  5. 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?


  1. Anne V.

    I’d love to embrace the science … but none of this is science unless you provide citations.

    You say: “According to neuroscientists”. Which neuroscientists (plural)? Please note, the Dr. Pillay you refer to is “a certified master executive coach, brain-imaging researcher, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School”[1], not specifically a specialist in neurology.

    Internauts say, “pictures or it didn’t happen.” Scientists say, “references or it’s not reliable.” I look forward to this article being made more reliable. (While you’re at it, you might also want to review the examples in your list of five actions … at least one of the structures to avoid is not actually passive.)

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Anne, thank you for your comments, including your apology. You may be interested in reading this article, “Processing nouns and verbs in the left frontal cortex: a transcranial magnetic stimulation study” in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18052789.

    Please note the precortex, often referred to as the executive function of the brain, tires quickly. This is another reason why those of us who are interested in helping people get things done want to make it easier for people to understand and act. Active verbs are easier to process than passive verbs.

  3. Gerassimos Fourlanos

    Both the above comments as well as the configuration of most grammar checking applications imply that passive voice is in principle forbidden.

    Is there any case where we should use passive voice? Why does passive voice exist in the first place, if it is to be avoided at all times?

  4. Liz Guthridge

    A participant in the LinkedIn Group Plain Language Advocates said that passive voice is appropriate in scientific writing, as explained in this article: http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/passive-voice.html.

    From my perspective, in business settings, active voice is superior. However, those who are timid, fear accountability or are too lazy to get to the heart of the issue can hide behind passive voice.

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. Sandra Folk

    Great article. I will share this with clients, particularly with people for whom English is not their first language.It seems that favouring the active over the passive voice in business writing is a somewhat challenging concept for them.
    I will also tweeted on Twitter.

  6. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Sandra.

    Using active verbs in business writing makes it so much more lively and interesting. Business writing should be engaging, like a conversation, not stuffy, like an old book that’s been stuck unopened on a bookshelf for too many years.

  7. Chris Amstutz


    Some great tips and interesting discussion. In transitioning to the active voice in my communications over the past several years I’ve definitely gotten better results. In some respects it puts greater ownership on the other party when action is required on their part. In my simple way of thinking I tend to think of active as “less squishy” and evasive language as well as defining clear ownership – if that makes sense?


  8. Michael

    Thanks for the good tips. Important to avoid passive for all the reasons you point out. But it’s important also to remember we have a wonderfully confusing, complex language, and sometimes passive constructions can serve to emphasize. I found the following example at http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/passive-voice/ : “100 votes are required to pass the bill. This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence (“The bill requires 100 votes to pass”) would put the emphasis on the bill, which may be less dramatic.”
    Still, 99% of the time you’re better off with active.

  9. Liz Guthridge

    Chris–Love the “less squishy”! And great to know you’re getting better results using active voice.

    Michael–I agree that passive voice has its place, especially in the example you used. Now I tend to shy away from that sentence construction because I always thought you needed to spell out one hundred rather than start the sentence with the more visual and impactful 100. (I still have nightmares about our Medill writing professors.)

  10. Denise

    Great comments. I find that as a woman, I have to temper the active voice. I have been told by my manager that internal and external customers complained that I was “too direct” and even “intimidating.”
    I have wondered, if I were male, would my active voice emails be interpreted the same way.

  11. Liz Guthridge

    Denise, you could be a great charter member for the organization, “People Who Are Too Direct For Others,” whenever I get around to forming it. Your instincts are probably correct.

    Thanks for sharing, and I hope you continue to be courageous and and direct as you practice brain-friendly communication.

  12. Jane

    Thank you for sharing

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