Mind-numbing. Teeth-grinding. Bone-bruising. Of course, I’m talking about clichés.
Slicing down from the skies like a spring hailstorm, they’ve bombarded us from our first breath. We use them constantly. We tell customers their dishes will be “virtually” spotless. We inform employees that, “moving forward, we’ll touch base on mutually beneficial opportunities.” And let’s not even get into mission statements.
Clichés are grammatical abuse of the worst kind, because they’re worthless. Worthless in advertising. Worthless in business memos. Worthless because they carry no weight. And, since they’re insubstantial, they can’t punch through the skin.
Because we’ve heard them before. And before that. And before that, and so on and so on. Until the words simply become a buzzing hum on a summer night.
The first time someone said “the early bird catches the worm,” a caveperson stopped, thought deeply about the sentiment, and decided to get up earlier to try to trap a mammoth.
The six thousandth time the phrase was used, a medieval princess stopped pining for her knight and started focusing on getting more REM sleep.
But the four hundred and three billionth time it was said, no one heard it. For, by then, the words meant nothing. Because, if something doesn’t change, over time, the brain tends to tune it out.
So, let’s kill the cliché.
Don’t Agree? Let’s Try a Test
You’re watching television. A car commercial comes on. Before you read another word of this article, imagine what it would look and sound like.
(Nope, don’t continue reading! Really imagine it first… It’ll make the rest of this article far more informative and entertaining. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)
OK, now that you’re done, let me take a shot at guessing at what you were imagining.
There’s a silver luxury car driving fast on a winding road next to the ocean, waves crashing hard against the sand. A narrator tells you about the new ZJ487C, which surrounds you with comfort and elegance. The deep voice explains that your entire life will change when you’re driving through it in this car. The camera then zooms up and back as the car drives away, and the narrator ends with, “The ZJ487C − Because You Deserve the Best − You Always Have.”
Ok, was my imagined commercial close to yours? I’m guessing so. Of course, your commercial may have varied a bit. Your car may have looked different, and it may have been driving through a forest. But I’m betting the concept was the same.
How do I know?
Because, it’s a cliché!
Like the commercial where an elderly couple walks on the beach as life insurance is discussed. Or a family celebrates the new frozen waffles that Mom brought home because she truly loves her family and wants what’s best for them − and, oh yeah, what’s most convenient for their day and easiest on the family budget. Or someone plays touch football with other incredibly enthused people as the side effects of a certain medicine they’re taking are recited by the very-serious narrator.
The thing is… none of this happens! No one knows these people. None of it resonates. None of it will drive a prospective customer to jump up off the couch and yell, “I must save for retirement while eating a convenient waffle and taking my prescriptions!”
Eight Reasons to Not Use Clichés
Avoid using clichés for these eight reasons:
- They don’t register. When faced with a cliché, we zone out. They just take up space and ensure that our audience will stop reading or listening.
- They’re a “cop out.” It doesn’t take skill to use them. They basically indicate that the writer was too lazy, or pressed for time, to be creative or find the “Thesaurus” feature on their updated version of Word.
- They’re confusing. Because they’re ambiguous, clichés can mean a million things to a million people. Things you often don’t want them to mean.
- They’re flat. Clichés aren’t vivid. They don’t stimulate the senses or anyone to open their wallets.
- They have no emotional impact. Since we’ve heard them before, they don’t cause our breath to catch or our hearts to race.
- They do not result in changed behavior or a new understanding. If you’re trying to get someone to buy your product or prepare for layoffs, the worst thing you can do is use a cliché. The best thing you can do is say it straight and clear.
- They don’t differentiate you. If you’re a car manufacturer, why use the same stale advertising concept that the competition uses − and has used since the Mesozoic Era? Don’t show us another winding road. Unless you’re The Beatles.
- They’re habit-forming. Once we use them, it’s easier to use them again. If you don’t believe me, try writing an entire business letter or signing a birthday card without using one cliché.
What to Do? Get Real!
I suggest using my patented* technique that I call “Real Emotional Language for the Audience,” or REAL. (*Ok, well, the technique isn’t even close to being patented, I’m not even sure how I’d begin to do that, in fact…. but the acronym is pretty cool, right?)
REAL is basically communicating sincerely—one human being to another. Using this approach, the above would sound more like this:
- Frozen waffles commercial: “Look, we know you’re busy. In the morning, you’ve got to shower, get the kids up, and do all the other things to get ready for the day. So let our waffles make your morning a little easier. You’ll like that they’re natural and inexpensive. And, your kids will like the taste. Don’t you wish making your life easier was always this easy?”
- Car commercial: “The new ZJ487C. It looks great. It runs beautifully. It’s not high maintenance. And, it will get heads to turn. Don’t believe us? Then check it out. No pressure. Just the pride you’ll get from driving the best.”
- Business memo to employees: “It’s been a tough year. Our profits are down and our competitors took market share. Therefore, we’re looking at everything we do. That could mean a number of things. Outsourcing. Selling assets. Possibly letting people go. But, we promise to communicate with you regularly and get input from every leader and department before we do anything. And, if jobs are affected, it will be done so respectfully, and with severance and outplacement support. Most important, whatever we do will be done with one objective… never being in this position again.”
Notice. No fluff. We didn’t hide the truth behind clichés. We communicated in a real way − from real people to real people. People who have thoughts, emotions, hopes and fears. Doing so will make them feel more cared about and hopefully more trusting and trusted, which means they’ll be more willing to listen and act. Especially if we then don’t bait-and-switch them in the future. If we walk the talk over and over and over again.
Why get real?
People are starving for sincerity, especially now.
So, if you want to reach people, be sincere.
If you want to get people to act, be sincere, knowing it’s in their best interest to act. If it’s not in their best interest, then why are you trying to get them to do it?
If you want people to believe you, be sincere. They’ll know if you’re not. They’ll feel it in their bones long before you say a word. And they’ll remember it when they walk into the car dealership, or get a call from another company’s recruiter while working for you.
Talk to them where they are. Tell them you understand. Tell them you care. Help them get what they want. And, above all, be sincere.
After all, it’s no crime to kill a cliché.
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Copyright 2001-2019, James R. Warda. All rights reserved.
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