It can happen to the best communicators.
We do our best to write valuable and lively content. We keep our writing to the point, and try to entertain our readers.
And of course we know we should avoid clichés and buzzwords.
But sometimes vapid words creep into our writing, weakening the strength of our messages.
How can you be sure? How can you spot clichés and avoid their destructive power?
To spot tired and faded words, you need to have a solid understanding of clichés first.
What are clichés?
Words can conjure up vivid images. Like an artist’s brush they paint a picture in your reader’s mind. Certain words can make you shiver. The legs of their letters crawl along your spine, tickling and scratching your skin. Brrr. Other words comfort you. They wrap their warmth around you, and with a peck on your cheek they make you smile.
Yet other words are simply words. They express a meaning, but leave you indifferent. No warmth, no vividness, no creepy-crawlies. Just plain words. But that’s not a bad thing. If every word had a strong sensory connotation, reading would become a visual and emotional roller-coaster, making it hard for readers to keep up.
So, what’s the problem with clichés?
Clichés once painted vivid pictures, but they’ve been so overused that their imagery has faded.
For instance, the first time someone used the phrase out of the box it was a vivid metaphor to explain the idea of creative thinking. While being stuck in a box, we can’t come up with wild and crazy ideas. To be creative, we need to crawl out of that box.
But now, the phrase out of the box is so tired, that nobody visualizes a box anymore. The imagery has completely faded, and that’s why it has become a cliché.
This is how George Orwell describes the problem of clichés:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’; (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between those two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
Metaphors go through a cycle. First, they’re new and exciting. After a while, they lose their impact and become meh. After a period of meh they might become okay again according to Orwell.
Let’s think about some more clichés… raising the bar, leveling up, the home stretch, knocking it out of the park, going back to the drawing board, taking the bull by the horns, being dressed to kill, firing on all cylinders, swimming against the tide, getting the ball rolling, content is king, killer headlines, giving it 110%.
See how all the above clichés have some visual meaning?
That visual meaning has faded over time. Nobody thinks about murderers when reading the phrase killer headlines. Nobody pictures a bull when you mention taking the bull by the horns. Nobody imagines a ball rolling when you start a project.
So how can you spot the clichés lurking in your content?
5 Warning signs you’re using a cliché
Avoiding clichés is not as easy as correcting grammar mistakes.
Grammar is mostly black and white. You either get it right. Or it’s wrong.
But clichés are a sliding scale. Some are worse than others. Some readers find killer content a cliché, while others may still find it okay.
These are the 5 warning signs you must look out for:
- The imagery of your phrase feels faded
- Your phrase feels trendy
- You’ve seen your phrase in Bullshit Bingo
- You’ve not taken the time to think about which phrase to use
- You sound like an MBA graduate trying to impress her peers
Once you’ve spotted a cliché, you have a choice of cures.
Cliché cure #1: Replacement therapy
Communicate stronger with everyday language.
Instead of thinking out of the box, you could think creatively or stimulate wild ideas.
Instead of raising the bar, you can improve the quality of your work. Instead of getting the ball rolling, you can start your project.
Cliché cure #2: Pimp your cliché
That’s pimping as in pimping a bike.
When I bought my bike, it wasn’t 100% fit for purpose, so I’ve pimped it by adding extra details—like a rack for pannier bags, bar ends to prevent sore wrists, toe clips so my feet don’t slide off the pedals, and mudguards to prevent a muddy backside.
You can also pimp a cliché by adding new details. For instance:
Imagine you want to tell someone to raise the bar. It’s a yucky expression, so you can pimp it with details:
Try raising the bar like a pole-vaulter, who polishes each tiny aspect of his performance. He practices his starting position, his acceleration, how to carry his pole, and the actual jump. In the same way, you can improve the quality of your work.
Or let’s say you want to mention that writing a blog is like running a marathon. That feels like a tired expression, so you can pimp it:
Preparing to write a blog post is like preparing for the marathon. Before you start, make sure you wear your lucky underpants and listen to your favorite music to get in the right mood. Then pour all your energy into your writing, before rewarding yourself with a rest, a cup of tea, and piece of chocolate. Your mind needs a rest—just like your body.
Cliché cure #4: The contrarian’s medicine
Instead of pointing out what’s similar, stress the difference:
Have you noticed how often sports analogies are used to explain how to run your business?
There’s a huge problem.
When you start running your own business, you’re unprepared for what’s coming. You don’t know the track. You haven’t completed the proper training. You might not even know what the finish line looks like. Let alone understanding how you get there.
Cliché cure #4: Acceptance
In rare cases, you might not be able to find a cure. The cliché is a cliché but you can’t replace or pimp it. So, you might as well accept it:
People do business with people. We know it’s a cliché but it’s true.
Clichés are for lazy business writers
Fine-tune your inner cliché detector by reading more. Spot the fading phrases. Note the buzzwords everyone is starting to use.
And then… become a language rebel.
Find phrases nobody uses. Add fascinating details. Use everyday language instead of jargon.
That’s how you develop your own voice. That’s how you become an enchanting business writer. And that’s how you can seduce your readers with your words.
PS Thank you to Lisa Esile who inspired the idea for this post when she left a comment about clichés a few weeks ago.