From Passive to Active: An Industry Imperative Straight Out Of The Poisonwood Bible

Passive voice robs writing of vitality, sapping ideas of their strength and grasp on reader attention.  Writers should strive to excise Passive Voice, replacing it with more muscular, more engaging, more descriptive Active Voice.

I’ve banged that grammatical drum for two decades, to the point of self-parody.  But increasingly, I see this passive vs. active debate transmogrifying from mere copywriting to encompass every aspect of advertising.  As an industry–and particularly as practitioners from the traditional agency world–we need to replace passive thinking with active thinking.  As the world of communications and consumer behavior changes, we must change too.  That requires a new active mindset that questions assumptions and encourages innovation.

Too many creatives still value edgy executions over edgy platform mixes.  Your TV spot may look incredibly cool, but if you haven’t introduced it in some new manner or added content and extended the experience to new and hopefully interactive platforms, what did you really accomplish?  Maybe slightly bigger ripples on the lake, but even those disappear pretty quickly–it’s a busy lake with a lot of different traffic.

Experience applied passively is no more than habit; experience applied actively truly breaks new ground.  All that wonderful video storytelling experience many traditional TV creatives possess remains vital, useful and differentiating when they apply it actively, pushing the delivery experience as well.

This Is Not A Book On Advertising.  At Least, Not Intentionally.

This Is Not A Book On Advertising. At Least, Not Intentionally.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s richly-imagined novel The Poisonwood Bible, the mother character looks back at her horrific experiences in the early-60’s Congo and how much of her family’s loss sprung directly from the intransigence of her husband.  Pushed to her breaking point, she simply walks away from their pathetic mission outpost, and her preacher husband…  “I moved, and he stood still.  But his kind will always lose in the end.  I know this, and now I know why.  Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still and their stake moves underneath them.”  You got that right Barbara, whether wife, nation…or agency: rote behavior leads to failure.

Advertising agencies face increasing challenges regarding compensation, resource management, and results delivery.  Passive reliance on the old ways will doom us to failure.  Active innovation and opportunity generation deliver the possibility of new revenue streams, new markets, and new category benefits.  And unlike our brethren in the financial world, ours will probably remain a free market, without government intervention, stimulus packages or bailouts.  The agency  organizations most open to active thinking will thrive.  The passive ones will provide the lions share of lost industry jobs.  Time to start thinking.  Hard.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

One thought on “From Passive to Active: An Industry Imperative Straight Out Of The Poisonwood Bible

  1. Coincidentally, my son’s Honors World History teacher won’t allow any of her students to turn in essays written in a passive voice. Needless to say the first couple of papers took hours longer to write. Old habits die hard, yet the results astound me. The insights of a 15 year-old written in active voice sound compelling and vital. Now, I run my writing past him.

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