Normative, Informative and Generative Voices

I’ve been thinking about how to convey the style of writing that I’ve learned while writing here, and this lens materialized. And yes, once again, the distinctions come in threes. As Nicklas Berild Lundblad suggested, I might be suffering from triangulism… and I like it.

The normative voice is spurring you to action. Normative voice aims to exert control, which may or may not be something you desire. For example, signs in public places tend to be written in a normative voice. Objectives, team principles, political slogans, and codes of conduct – all typically have that same quality. Normative voice usually conveyed some intention, whether veiled or not. 

The informative voice is not here to tell you what to do. Informative voice goes “here’s a thing I see” or “here is what I am doing.” Informative voice does not mean to impose an intention – it just wants to share what it’s seeing. As such, the informative voice tends to come across aloof and unemotional, like that of a detached observer.

Given that our primary medium of communication is of human origin and thus deeply rooted in feelings, it is incredibly challenging to separate normative and informative voices. I might believe that I am writing something in an informative voice, but employ epithets and the turns of the phrase that betray my attachment. Similarly, I could be voicing something that looks informative, but actually intends to control you – aka the ancient art of manipulating others. Let’s admit it, my teen self saying: “Mom, all kids have cool <item of clothing> and I don’t” was not an informative voice, no matter how neutrally presented. Another good sign of “conveyed as informative, yet actually normative” voice is the presence of absolute statements in the language or subtly – or not! – taking sides as we describe them.

Conversely, I might be trying to write normative prose, yet offer no firm call to action or even a sense of intention. My experience is that this kind of “conveyed as normative, yet actually informative” voice is commonly an outcome of suffering through a committee-driven wordsmithing process. “I swear, this mission statement was meant to say something. We just can’t remember what.” – oh lordy, forgive me for I have produced my share of these.

Within this lens, the constant struggle between the two – and the struggle to untangle the two – might seem rather unsatisfying and hopeless. Conveniently, I have a third voice that I’ve yet to introduce.

The generative voice accepts the struggle as a given and builds on that. Generative voice embraces the resonance-generating potential of the normative voice and the wealth of insights cherished by the informative voice. Yet at the same time, it aims to hold the intention lightly while still savoring the richness of feelings conveyed by the language. Generative voice is the voice that spurs to improvise, to jam with ideas, to add your own part to the music of thinking.

This is the language that I aim for when writing these little essays. For example, I use the words “might” and “tends to” to indicate that these aren’t exact truths, and I don’t intend to hold these firmly. I try to explore every side of the framing with empathy, inhabiting each of the corners for a little while. But most significantly, I hold up hope that after reading these, you feel invited to play with the ideas I conveyed, to riff on these, departing from the original content into places that resonate more with you. When speaking in the generative voice, I primarily care about catalyzing new insights for my future self – and you. And in doing so, I am hopeful that I am helping us both find new ways to look at the challenges we’re facing.

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