When to use passive voice

Plain language proposals are convincing, easy to read and easy to score—all good qualities. And a cardinal plain language rule is to avoid the passive voice. Passive voice makes sentences sound weak and their intent less clear.

But, as this post explains, passive voice fulfills an important purpose in certain situations.

What is passive voice?

Voice is a characteristic of verbs, the part of a sentence that contains the action. To design, to build, to operate, to maintain—these are all verbs.

In a passive voice sentence, the individual or entity performing the action (“the actor”) is not required to complete the idea. For example, if you want to state that your service department will handle warranty claims, you could write:

  • All valid warranty claims will be addressed.

The corresponding active voice version might read:

  • Our service department will address all valid warranty claims.

Why is passive voice a bad thing?

Passive voice creates two issues you typically want to avoid in a proposal:

  • If the actor is missing, an evaluator might be confused about who is responsible. Bureaucrats love this vagueness (“Mistakes were made”)—but evaluators reward clarity.
  • As a side effect, overuse of passive voice robs a proposal of energy and conviction.

Style exceptions: Passive voice is acceptable where the actor is:

  • An automated process: For example: Pellets are transferred to the sorting machine.
  • Unknown or irrelevant: For example: The curtain walls were severely damaged.

Use active voice in most situations

Allowing for the exceptions noted above, follow these guidelines:

  • Write RFQ responses in active voice. These are pure sales documents. Detail your team’s make-up and past experience and successes in the strongest possible terms, the better to get shortlisted for the RFP stage.
  • In single-stage RFP responses, use active voice in non-solution narratives (corporate profile, key individual resumes, past projects, etc.). Use passive voice strategically in solution sections (design, build or implement, operate and maintain, etc.). See next section.
  • Use passive voice strategically in RFP responses submitted following shortlisting via RFQ. This type of RFP is almost entirely focused on the proposed solution. See next section.

Strategic use of passive voice

RFP issuers are increasingly including language that gives them the right to make any part of a proposal contractually binding. As a result, the successful proponent has less room to obtain favourable terms in subsequent contract negotiations.

For example, “Our service department will address all valid warranty claims,” could obligate your service department to perform all warranty claims, even if your intent—and industry practice—is that OEMs will do most of the work. This might be an insignificant distinction, until an OEM declares bankruptcy.

For this reason, many companies bidding on large projects have their legal departments scrub responses pre-submission to eliminate unnecessary exposure. Converting commitments from active to passive voice and omitting the actor is one way to do this.

Bottom line

Passive voice comes at a cost—using it makes technical narratives less convincing, potentially reducing their score. But passive voice also offers the prospect of avoiding costly commitments in subsequent contract negotiations, thus enabling a lower price offer.

The key is to understand and manage these trade-offs.

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