Last week at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton delivered a speech to remember. It was pointed, impassioned, and at just under 50 minutes, filled with Clinton’s own ad-libs and asides that tested the skills of his teleprompter operator. (He added 2,300 words to his 3,200-word speech — a 72% increase.)
This set the Internet a-Twittering about Bill Clinton, master ad-libber. News organizations released a text vs. audio comparison of his now famous DNC speech, revealing the thought process of a great orator who knows how to use language in a way that instills agency and inspires action.
Clinton made a number of noteworthy edits on the fly. He changed “should vote for Barack Obama” to “must vote for Barack Obama,” conveying a sense of urgency. He used “we” instead of “you,” which says, “we’re in this together.” He added in no-nonsense, conversational lead-ins like, “You see, we believe that X” or “Now, we all know that X,” setting up the vivid portrait of contrast he painted between the two candidates.
But in my mind, one of the best and most important edits was also one of the smallest. It happened at the very beginning of his speech (see the full edited transcript):
A man who stopped the slide into depression and put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs
were created and savedhe saved or created, there were still millions more waiting, trying to feed their children and worried about feeding their own kids, trying to keep their hopes alive.
Clinton went from the passive voice (Jobs were created and saved…) to the active voice (He saved or created jobs…). Now, you probably remember the passive voice being maligned by your middle school English teacher (Grammar Girl explains the difference between active and passive voice, if you want details) — but why is this so important?
As Constance Hale put it in her New York Times column, “In the active voice, the subject performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.” So it’s a question of agency. WHO created and saved these jobs? If “jobs were created and saved,” it leaves open for interpretation who should get credit for this action. Maybe it was the Democrats, maybe it was the Republicans, maybe it was just a matter of luck.
By saying “he saved or created” these jobs, Clinton is giving the credit to President Obama without a doubt. It empowers him as a job creator, rather than making him a passive observer of something outside of his control. It’s a small but significant edit at a time when job creation (and Obama’s ability to make it happen) is at the forefront of the 2012 election.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the passive voice is always wrong. Sometimes, like in certain kinds of scientific and academic writing, it makes sense to diminish yourself or the “actor” in the sentence. For example, “The monkeys were found to respond well to X” rather than “We found the monkeys responded well to X.” In this case, the researchers don’t want to insert themselves too much into the writing because it distracts the reader from their findings. This style often makes sense in crime or accident reports as well.
But as with all writing, there should be a conscious choice behind the voice you use. Remember, there’s a big difference between saying “I made a mistake” vs. “Mistakes were made.” The former is a disarming statement of strength that’s likely to get people’s attention — and hopefully earn their forgiveness. The latter is slimy and slippery, suggesting that no one is willing to take charge or own up to bad decisions. In general, passive voice isn’t the best way for politicians or other leaders to win over trust.
So when in doubt, if you’re speaking in public, go active like Clinton does. Here’s a little mnemonic device to help you out: Active voice is for agents. Passive voice is for pushovers.