convey to compel 2: active voice

Tell. Don’t describe.

There’s a certain kind of voice that penetrates the barrier to your listeners’ minds. Learn how to use it, or keep speaking in vain.

Building on the concept of IQ from the previous post:

You don’t speak to people. You speak to their IQ. More specifically, you speak to their Working Memory Capacity. They will only grasp what their IQ lets them.

So let’s remember what Working Memory Capacity is:

It’s the measure of how much data we can hold in our brains, and for how long, so we can make sense of it all.

We can speak in an active voice or a passive voice. These two voices differ in only one way: the order in which they deliver ideas. This is important because the order in which data is presented to us can unnecessarily increase how much Working Memory Capacity we need to make sense of it. 

This revolves around how the two ideas are logically related to each other. In other words, which idea is fundamental to the other idea? The fundamental idea needs to be spoken first.

Fundamental ideas and the active voice:

What does it mean when an idea is fundamental to another idea? Let’s look at this.

We have idea 1 and idea 2.

Idea 1 is fundamental to idea 2. This means that idea 1 gives rise to idea 2, in the logical realm. In other words, without idea 1, we wouldn’t be hearing about idea 2 in the first place. Idea 1 is the fundamental idea. Idea 2 is the resulting idea.

Another way to look at it, is that the fundamental idea is the subject, and the resulting idea is the object. The subject is the person or thing that is doing something to the object. In other words, we’re only hearing about the object, because the subject is doing something to it. The subject is still the focal point.

So where does this “active voice” come in? Well, we need to talk in an active voice. This means we need to deliver the fundamental idea (the subject) first in our sentence, and the resulting idea or the object, second. Otherwise, if the resulting idea or object comes first, then we’ve reversed the logical and natural order of ideas. This is called speaking in the passive voice, which is harder for listeners to understand. Let’s look at an example:

Matt wrote this post.


This post was written by Matt.

“Matt” is the fundamental idea or the subject. 

“This post” is the resulting idea, or the object.

The first sentence puts less strain on the listener’s or reader’s Working Memory Capacity, because the natural order of things remains in tact. Let’s look at a slightly more complex example: one of the first lines in this post.

There’s a certain kind of voice that penetrates the barrier to your listeners’ minds.


The barrier to your listeners’ minds is penetrated by a certain kind of voice.

The “voice” is the fundamental idea or subject. It penetrates the resulting idea/object, which is the “barrier.” Again, the first line requires less effort from our Working Memory Capacity. You may not even notice it but trust that over time, reading a bunch of sentences in the passive voice can deplete the brain’s energy supply, and gradually build an underlying sense of frustration.  We don’t want this, and we definitely don’t want to exhaust people’s working memory on trivial matters when we’re trying to convey more complex ideas that justify exhausting it.

You don’t need to use the active voice 100% of the time. Especially if you’re writing to entertain people. However, if you’re writing to get a point across, the active voice is your friend.