Avoid cliches, except when they make sense

You’ve probably been told to “Avoid clichés” in your writing—possibly “at all costs.” The advice itself is nearly cliché.

You may have seen friends posting smug comments about others’ clichés or about the imperative to not use them.

You may have read articles listing the “10 Business Clichés You Should Eliminate from your Vocabulary.”

I used to teach college English, so I’ve given advice along these lines. It’s good advice.

Basically.

Like any rule, though (especially language rules), it came into existence for a reason, and when you understand that reason you can bend or break the rule with confidence.

Like, dressing in a tux and giving a girl roses is pretty cliché, but it may be exactly what’s called for if you’re going to the prom or a formal dinner.

Or take this situation I found myself in recently. I was speaking with a business coach about a recent roadblock, and after he said some simple but insightful things, I said:

You think I have a good idea,” I said. “I guess I still have to sell myself, first.”

I may have used scare quotes, just to make it clear I knew it was a cliché.

And, in fact, you might note that the actual cliché phrase usually goes, “Your first sale is to yourself.” Even coming as close as I did felt uncomfortable. I may even have substituted the word convince for sell.

Okay, so it was a cliché, but it was the cliché I needed at that moment. It said what I wanted to say in the most efficient way.

Sympathy for Clichés

Most clichés began as vibrant language, language that captured an idea or communicated a concept effectively for its audience. Then they died, poor things.

Now, words are metaphorical, which is a fancy way of saying that they bear an indirect relation to the things they name. The word beer, as you may have learned the hard way, is not the same as the thing it refers to. Nor are the words leadership, marketing, or growth.

Or phrases like “Find your why” and “Your first sale is to yourself.”

This is what makes poetic language possible, as well as many jokes and all puns, so it’s a good thing. But there’s no way to prevent people from overusing or misusing language until it ceases to mean what it originally meant.

That’s just how language works.

What’s Wrong with Clichés

Clichés are only dead horses we keep beating. We roll our eyes or groan because the original power of the words has dissipated. They no longer carry the same feelings and ideas, and in fact they no longer actually make us think of anything specific, anymore.

If we’re not thinking anything, it isn’t a big logical leap to infer the speaker isn’t thinking either.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with clichés. You never want to come across as someone who is simply not thinking. It damages your authority. It puts up a huge wall against earning trust.

It may even bore your audience to the point that their attention starts to waver—the marketer’s nightmare scenario.

When a Cliché is Not a Cliché

My guess is I’m not going out on a limb when I assume that you wouldn’t fault me for using the cliché in that coaching conversation. (And, yes, I know the cliché about what happens when I assume.)

What made the difference?

When can you use a cliché with impunity?

Almost never in written copy, to be honest. The rare exceptions will probably be in-person, as in my example above.

Here are two reasons I got away with a cliché, which will reveal why it’s so rare that they can actually work.

We had a specific, shared context

I was at a copywriting and marketing workshop. All the coaches and attendees were businesspeople, which is to say they live and die by powerful copy.

That means there was a large amount of shared context. There is a certain language I can use among such people that still means something specific. For them “I have to sell myself, first,” refers to an important emotional stage of an entrepreneur’s journey.

When you take language from this context and apply it in a different one, the audience does not necessarily know the original context. They’ll have to make their own inferences as to what those words mean, so, “sell yourself, first,” may just sound like a sales-y way of saying, “Believe in yourself.”

(Which, to be fair, it sort of is, but you can see how it gets watered down by changing contexts and becoming associated with another cliché.)

I had confidence in how my audience would understand me

Honestly, “Think about the audience” should be as ingrained in your mind as “Avoid clichés.” My audience in this conversation—and in many conversations at this event—was a fellow marketing professional who has had to address questions similar to mine in his own business.

We were also all people with real passions, and we were speaking to one another as fellow travelers, not as potential sales.

When I threw that cliché out there, it didn’t land as a cliché; it summed up in a nutshell an entire journey I was in the middle of. It was a quick way of saying, to a man I’d just met, “Oh, now I understand where that cliché came from. I’m living it!”

 

Now, to be sure, there were a couple people I met who used the clichés as a way of avoiding their real feelings. Shoot, I’ve done that myself. If we’d had more time to get deeper, I might not have felt the need for the cliché at all.

The point is that there is no point in getting too uppity and fastidious about language use. Yes, you should learn from other authors about good style and the rules of the language, but you should never forget that language must communicate.

If your words say what they need to, to the people that need to hear it, in the way they need to hear it, then don’t let the style snobs stop you.

 

Image via Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo.
How to Get Away with Using Cliches
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