Thursday, 5 March 2009

Beware the layer cake of negativity

Language and attitudes reinforce each other. If people in your organisation write using passive language then you may have a passive work ethic to address. Compare:

‘I’ll fix this’


‘This will be fixed’

The first statement is active. The action and the person doing it are made clear. And the writer has taken ownership for fixing. It says here’s a positive, hands-on working culture where people naturally think, speak and write in an active way: ‘I’ll check that for you; I’ll follow this up; we’ll work it out…’

The second is passive and unclear: who will fix it? It’s the talk of an impersonal, disengaged work culture: ‘this will be reviewed; arrangements have been made; a resolution will be reached…’

People still say ‘it’s more than my job’s worth’ without irony. This is a passive statement about being passive to a passive situation. Any taste of action or involvement is lost deep in a layer-cake of negativity.

If Mr. Jobsworth is slumped at the passive end of the spectrum of engagement then who’s at the active extreme? Jamie Oliver. Yes sir.  If you want writing supersaturated with active statements then have a peep at The Naked Chef:

“I do love food – I’m obsessed by it. I think about breakfast in the evening and dinner at breakfast. I often daydream about family dinners ten days in advance… It goes a bit like this: English asparagus has come in, the peas are sweet and bursting in your mouth, the mint in the herb box is growing like the clappers and strangling the rosemary, leafy Sicilian lemons are about – bloody hell, this is great – I know for a fact that I’ve got some extra virgin olive oil stashed in the back of the cupboard at home, some great Arborio risotto rice, some tagliatelle or spaghetti even, I’ve got fresh organic eggs which are double-yolkers and golden and I’ve got a couple of those goose eggs from Mr Turnip down Borough Market. I could make a frittata with some Pecorino and Parmesan, or maybe some goat’s cheese. My mouth’s beginning to water; right, I’ll buy those peas mate and I’ll have that asparagus. I’ll eat some of these peas raw while I’m waiting to pay.”

Now you may not want to resemble Jamie Oliver in any way, but his writing has qualities of energy, confidence and ownership that are there for any organisation to harness, just by changing a few habits and making the switch to active language.

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