How to simplify language for marketing (Part 2): The case of Slack and the passive voice [Updated].

a stack of houses together to show content marketing

This is Part 2 of a four part series. See Part 1 on simplifying language.

We’ve all heard of the active and passive voice in writing. “Use the active voice” is often the first critique we receive on our writing in college English courses. But the rules for using passive and active often seem arbitrary. To aid in sentence clarity, we’re told to use the active voice, but no one provides us with the rules for using the passive voice.


The easiest way to identify passive voice in a sentence is to search for auxiliary forms of the verb to be and the past participle of the action verb (walked, eaten, stood, ate). Forms of to be include am/are/is; was/were; have been/has been/had been; will be/will have been. For example: The deal was brokered by the team. Here the auxiliary form of to be is “was” and the action verb is “brokered.” Passive constructions will be paired with past participles in sentences.


If we use the active voice, we make our sentences more direct by naming the action undertaken by the subject of the sentence. For example: The team brokered the deal. In this active sentence, the action of brokering the deal is directly transferred to the subject, the team. If we use the passive voice, the subject expresses the end result of an action. For example: The deal was brokered by the team. Here the subject reveals the result of an action, which appears before the subject in the sentence.


When deciding between the active and passive voice, it’s helpful to consider word count. In the above example, the active sentence contains 5 words while the passive contains 7. Imagine a document filled with 20 sentences––between passive and active the difference can potentially be 40 words. And 40 words can be the difference between clear or murky messaging.


Yet passive voice has its place. If in a longer piece of writing the subject stays the same, then it’s okay to use the passive because the reader will know that you’re referring to the same subject. You can also use the passive to avoid stating responsibility. For example: The employees who are indicted on charges of fraud can be sent to prison. In this example, the sentence does not directly state who is responsible for the action, merely that some employees have the possibility of going to prison as a result of their fraud charges. Passive voice can also be used to avoid using all-male pronouns and first person-singular pronouns; it can also be used to deflect responsibility or conceal information.


How companies use the passive and active may communicate different ideas. Consider Slack’s main message on their home page, as of March 25, 2019: “Slack is a collaboration hub for work, no matter what work you do. It’s a place where conversations happen, decisions are made, and information is always at your fingertips. With Slack, your team is better connected.” Breaking down the sentence by passive/active we get: Slack is a collaboration hub (passive). It’s a place where conversations happen (passive), decisions are made (passive), and information is always at your fingertips (passive). With Slack, your team is better connected (passive).



For comparison, let’s convert the entire message into the active voice: “Slack provides a hub for collaboration, no matter what work you do. With Slack, conversation happens, decisions occur, and information moves. Slack connects your team.” There’s a big difference between the two. The passive construction contains 36 words while the active contains 25––a difference of 11 words. The passive construction emphasizes what Slack is  while the active emphasizes what Slack enables teams to do. Last, the passive emphasizes all the work that happens on Slack’s platform, while the active underscores how using Slack leads to different levels of productivity.


As a company, Slack decided to use the passive voice to underscore the existential qualities of its platform. If we remove the passive voice, the message underscores the mere instrumentality of Slack: Slack provides X; Slack does Y; and Slack connects Z. The active has the effect of making Slack appear invisible. Using a verb form of to be (“is”), Slack manages to highlight not only the expedient uses of its platform but also its unique cultural characteristics that will meld and merge within a given company. In my view, the passive construction highlights the right properties of Slack in its messaging, but the addition of some active sentence constructions may have made the message more concise while not diminishing its characteristics. In the end, there’s always a choice (and choices) to make that will affect various components of the message.*

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.

How to simplify language for marketing (Part 1) [Updated]

a yellow pineapple to represent content marketing simplified

This is Part 1 of a four part series. See Part 2 on simplifying language.

In content marketing, clear and precise language translates into a powerful and resonant message. Clear language is often simple, but it’s not simple in the sense of being basic or subpar. We call language simple when it’s easy to understand and when it presents no difficulty of comprehension to the intended reader or audience. The audience can instantly grasp the message. Yet how an audience embraces this message often depends on their prior knowledge of the subject.


English grammar and usage manuals often use the terms clarity and grace in place of simplicity. Language that has clarity is coherent and intelligible, and as readers we do not need to strain our minds to understand a key idea or concept. The late English professor Joseph M. Williams argued that prior knowledge of a subject usually influences how we interact with a given idea or concept. As he says, “What counts most in comprehending a text is how much we already know about its content.” Text and message are interchangeable. If we know a lot about a subject, chances are we interact positively with the message because we understand its argument, whether we agree or disagree with its overall message. If we know little about the subject, and we’re reading a text that assumes we know a lot, we usually respond with irritation and confusion. We ultimately fail to comprehend the message because the writer assumed too much.


The amount we comprehend about a company and its message depends on our prior knowledge of not only the brand but the industry and its accompanying technical knowledge. When I land on Uber’s main home page, I see the following message: “Move the way you want.” The message uses freedom to appeal to both drivers and riders. As consumers we can hail an Uber ride whenever we want; as drivers we have the flexibility and freedom to work at our convenience. We comprehend Uber’s message because we know that Uber offers transportation, and when we connect freedom with transportation, we have a message that communicates convenience and ease.


When a product or service is more complex and technical, prior knowledge becomes a key pivot point because writers have to estimate how much information their readers need in order to understand a message. Yet when there is no product or service, but rather a technology, the issue magnifies the implications. Take cryptocurrency, for example, an innovative technology built on blockchain, which is a decentralized ledger recording all transactions across a peer network. I’m not an expert in cryptocurrency, but after reading about crypto and the industry, I find myself fixating on the idea that cryptocurrency is often defined as an encrypted string of data, at its most basic level. Go further into the construction of cryptocurrency, and the tech jargon piles up: algorithms, hash functions, and Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT). Fittingly, the prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.


If I don’t have a knowledge of encryption—or even a generalized conception of it—then it’s much harder for me to grasp a company’s message or white paper about cryptocurrency, particularly when they emphasize its encryption methods. In other words, my lack of prior knowledge hindered my comprehension of a fundamental concept operating in cryptocurrency.


Companies face a fundamental issue in their messaging materials when deciding how much knowledge their target audience must possess. Each community or target audience will possess unique bodies of knowledge, or “characteristic ways of thinking about problems, of making and evaluating arguments,” as Joseph M. Williams says. A doctor will confidently discuss with another doctor how a virus replicates within the human body because the doctor can safely assume that the other doctor attended medical school and knows that viruses are obligate intracellular pathogens that need a host cell to replicate. Both doctors are part of the same interpretive community.


If a doctor discusses the biology behind virus replication with a patient, chances are the patient does not have the same background to instantly (and I specifically say “instantly”) understand the full scope of the main message. The doctor would have to go back to basics to make sure the main message and concept of virus replication relay to the patient. To drive the cryptocurrency example home: a strong writer must juggle a concise but in-depth explanation of encryption while not diminishing or foregoing the main value points of cryptocurrency.


Each audience possess different knowledge sets that vary in scale. While people in IT most likely will have a deeper understanding of various encryption methods, and will better relate to a cryptocurrency message touting some unthinkable advantage over others, a different audience may not. The marketing fundamental, know your audience, is commonplace for a reason. And to those that say cryptocurrency does not have a target audience because it is a global currency, I would then put forth the argument that the audience is everyone. For crypto to become global and widespread, people with various backgrounds would need to know what it is.


In marketing a product or service, the ability to predict how much our audience knows can mean the difference between a sale and a bust. In other words, the rate at which we process a message is key. If an audience can quickly and almost instantly comprehend a company’s message in marketing collateral, then the message forges a strong identification with potential customers. And given that an audience’s attention span has decreased dramatically in the last decades as research has shown, there’s a limited window to craft a resonating message. Williams rightly says “that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see.” While there are other components to clear writing, the fundamental idea is that we want our audiences to hopefully use as many human senses as possible to experience a brand and message with clarity, despite the varying amounts of technical information needed to understand a given product and its industry.


Finding the right balance between knowing how much to assume as a writer is vital. Given that this balance is often different when writing a slogan or white paper, and varies according to each industry’s specifications and target audience, the right balance is often the difference between confusion and comprehension.*

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.

How to simplify language (Part 1)

a yellow pineapple to represent content marketing simplified

In content marketing, clear and precise language translates into a powerful and resonant message. Clear language is often simple, but it’s not simple in the sense of being basic or subpar. We call language simple when it’s easy to understand and when it presents no difficulty of comprehension to the intended reader or audience. The audience can instantly grasp the message. Yet how an audience embraces this message often depends on their prior knowledge of the subject.


English grammar and usage manuals often use the terms clarity and grace in place of simplicity. Language that has clarity is coherent and intelligible, and as readers we do not need to strain our minds to understand a key idea or concept. The late English professor Joseph M. Williams argued that prior knowledge of a subject usually influences how we interact with a given idea or concept. As he says, “What counts most in comprehending a text is how much we already know about its content.” Text and message are interchangeable. If we know a lot about a subject, chances are we interact positively with the message because we understand its argument, whether we agree or disagree with its overall message. If we know little about the subject, and we’re reading a text that assumes we know a lot, we usually respond with irritation and confusion. We ultimately fail to comprehend the message because the writer assumed too much.


The amount we comprehend about a company and its message depends on our prior knowledge of not only the brand but the industry and its accompanying technical knowledge. When I land on Uber’s main home page, I see the following message: “Move the way you want.” The message uses freedom to appeal to both drivers and riders. As consumers we can hail an Uber ride whenever we want; as drivers we have the flexibility and freedom to work at our convenience. We comprehend Uber’s message because we know that Uber offers transportation, and when we connect freedom with transportation, we have a message that communicates convenience and ease.


When a product or service is more complex and technical, prior knowledge becomes a key pivot point because writers have to estimate how much information their readers need in order to understand a message. Yet when there is no product or service, but rather a technology, the issue magnifies the implications. Take cryptocurrency, for example, an innovative technology built on blockchain, which is a decentralized ledger recording all transactions across a peer network. I’m not an expert in cryptocurrency, but after reading about crypto and the industry, I find myself fixating on the idea that cryptocurrency is often defined as an encrypted string of data, at its most basic level. Go further into the construction of cryptocurrency, and the tech jargon piles up: algorithms, hash functions, and Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT). Fittingly, the prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.


If I don’t have a knowledge of encryption—or even a generalized conception of it—then it’s much harder for me to grasp a company’s message or white paper about cryptocurrency, particularly when they emphasize its encryption methods. In other words, my lack of prior knowledge hindered my comprehension of a fundamental concept operating in cryptocurrency.


Companies face a fundamental issue in their messaging materials when deciding how much knowledge their target audience must possess. Each community or target audience will possess unique bodies of knowledge, or “characteristic ways of thinking about problems, of making and evaluating arguments,” as Joseph M. Williams says. A doctor will confidently discuss with another doctor how a virus replicates within the human body because the doctor can safely assume that the other doctor attended medical school and knows that viruses are obligate intracellular pathogens that need a host cell to replicate. Both doctors are part of the same interpretive community.


If a doctor discusses the biology behind virus replication with a patient, chances are the patient does not have the same background to instantly (and I specifically say “instantly”) understand the full scope of the main message. The doctor would have to go back to basics to make sure the main message and concept of virus replication relay to the patient. To drive the cryptocurrency example home: a strong writer must juggle a concise but in-depth explanation of encryption while not diminishing or foregoing the main value points of cryptocurrency.


Each audience possess different knowledge sets that vary in scale. While people in IT most likely will have a deeper understanding of various encryption methods, and will better relate to a cryptocurrency message touting some unthinkable advantage over others, a different audience may not. The marketing fundamental, know your audience, is commonplace for a reason. And to those that say cryptocurrency does not have a target audience because it is a global currency, I would then put forth the argument that the audience is everyone. For crypto to become global and widespread, people with various backgrounds would need to know what it is.


In marketing a product or service, the ability to predict how much our audience knows can mean the difference between a sale and a bust. In other words, the rate at which we process a message is key. If an audience can quickly and almost instantly comprehend a company’s message in marketing collateral, then the message forges a strong identification with potential customers. And given that an audience’s attention span has decreased dramatically in the last decades as research has shown, there’s a limited window to craft a resonating message. Williams rightly says “that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see.” While there are other components to clear writing, the fundamental idea is that we want our audiences to hopefully use as many human senses as possible to experience a brand and message with clarity, despite the varying amounts of technical information needed to understand a given product and its industry.


Finding the right balance between knowing how much to assume as a writer is vital. Given that this balance is often different when writing a slogan or white paper, and varies according to each industry’s specifications and target audience, the right balance is often the difference between confusion and comprehension.*

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.