posted 26 Oct 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 2
The Gurteen Perspective: Personally speaking
By David Gurteen
A while back, a friend told me that she had forwarded my monthly knowledge letter to a number of colleagues and that several had commented that it was strange that I used the word ‘I’ a lot.
I found this amusing as I quite deliberately use the word. I strive to avoid the passive voice. Both my website and my newsletter are personal endeavours and so it makes sense to write in the first person, but it took me a while to learn that.
In the early days it was feedback from a friend who said, “Hey David, I love your newsletter but it is so much more interesting and authentic when you are ‘yourself’ and speak in ‘your own voice’ about something you feel passionate about”. That helped convince me to write in the first person.
It was also at that time I first read the book The Cluetrain Manifesto and the thoughts of David Weinberger on voice: “We have been trained throughout our business careers to suppress our individual voice and to sound like a ‘professional’, that is, to sound like everyone else. This professional voice is distinctive. And weird. Taken out of context, it is as mannered as the ritualistic dialogue of the 17th-century French court.”
But it goes deeper. I was educated as a scientist. I was instructed to write in the passive voice. That’s what scientists do. I never really questioned it. Well at least not until I came across an article in New Scientist magazine by Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist and author. Here is how he started his article:
“‘The test tube was carefully smelt.’ I was astonished to read this sentence on my 11-year-old son’s science notebook. At primary school his science reports had been lively and vivid. But when he moved to secondary school they become stilted and passive. This was no accident. His teachers told him to write this way.”
Writing in the passive voice is meant to make science objective, impersonal and professional. Maybe it does, but at great cost. It is less truthful. And this style has spilt over into our business world.
To my mind one of the best examples of the distortion caused by the passive voice are the biographies of conference speakers. Everyone knows they are not written by an independent person, but by the speakers themselves. So when they read, “Dr John Smith is an internationally acclaimed educator, speaker and trainer … he is a world renowned thought leader, author and practitioner,” you know you are reading hype: Here is someone with a huge ego telling you just how great he is.
Writing like this is misleading. It is alienating. But if you write your bio in the first person then it becomes harder to write such rubbish. You are making it personal.
The active voice is more truthful. It gives us ownership of our work. It makes it harder to distort things. It involves us with the subject more. It liberates us to be ourselves.
Bloggers and storytellers have already discovered this. By writing personally they free themselves to be more creative.
So I love to use the word ‘I’. I hope you are inspired to write more personally too.
David Gurteen is the founder of the Gurteen Knowledge Community. He can be contacted via his website, www.gurteen.com.