Blog Post

Personally speaking

Posted to Gurteen Knowledge-Log by David Gurteen on 30 December 2014



Personally speaking
WeblogGurteen Knowledge Log
Knowledge LetterAppears in the Gurteen Knowledge Letter issue: 174
Posted DateTuesday 30 December 2014 14:35 GMT
Posted ByDavid Gurteen

Over the last 15 years that I have been producing this newsletter, I am occasionally criticised for writing in the first person. I am told that I use the word "I" far too much and that it is a sign of narcissism.

I find 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 makes it seem that way, but it cannot disguise the fact that despite the Scienticfic Method scientists have the same cognitive biases that we all possess.

Unfortunately, this style of writing 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 it is highly likely that you are reading hype.

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. And before someone points it out, most of my bios are written in the 3rd person - conference organizers demand them that way but I hope I manage to avoid the hype!

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.

So I love to use the word ‘I'. I hope you are inspired to write more personally too.

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

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