Cliches: Trite or Trendy?

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Successful B2B business communication always boils down to using just the right words or phrases.  Whether it’s a speech, blog, e-mail, tweet, or press release, word-smithing is a factor. As the author of any of these document types, you may want to consider clichés as a category of phrases or words to either avoid or embrace.

Here are the top ten business clichés according to business author Seth Godin. His original ten have now grown to over 380 words or phrases in his “The Encyclopedia of Business Clichés,” most all of which have been added, or voted upon, by site users on Squidoo.com.

 Top Ten Business Cliches

1. Win-win situation 6. Paradigm shift
2. Thinking outside of the box 7. At the end of the day,…
3. Giving 110% 8. Low-hanging fruit
4. Best practices 9. Going forward
5. Synergy 10. Push the envelope

Cliches are important to good writing and effective communications. Since we all write, even if it’s just e-mail, we should understand the issues and implications of clichés, such as:

  • What are the various manifestations of clichés? Text messaging acronyms?
  • As shorthand, are they communications efficient?
  • Are clichés okay to use in certain types of documents?
  • What role does the target audience play in determining whether clichés are acceptable?
  • Can clichés contribute to Web 3.0’s “compelling content?”

Is Godin’s interpretation of clichés correct, that some make communicating “easier,” while others hide, obfuscate, lie, or confuse/avoid the issue?

What Are Clichés?

According to Wikipedia, a cliché is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work that has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea which is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. It is likely to be used pejoratively. But clichés are not always false or inaccurate; a cliché may or may not be true. Some are stereotypes, but some are simply truisms and facts. A cliché may sometimes be used in a work of fiction for comedic effect.

A survey of the MarkeTech team produced these descriptors of the characteristics of a cliché:

  • Trite
  • Hackneyed
  • Threadbare (not fresh, and doesn’t evoke attention or interest)
  • Commonplace (used often enough that most everyone understands/gets it)
  • Meaningless
  • Dull
  • Overused
  • Boring
  • Unoriginal
  • Convenient
  • Shorthand (The old saw about prisoners who have told each other the same jokes so often that they numbered them, and now just yell out a number, instead of reciting the entire joke)

Some of these characteristics ascribe potentially positive attributes. “Convenient” is possibly good news. “Commonplace” connotes everyone understands the cliché. But, just from this informal survey, the negative characteristics seem to far outweigh the limited positives.

As shorthand, are they communications efficient?

From the above survey list, I’ve isolated the shorthand characteristic of clichés. One interesting observation is that not only are clichés shorthand, but that we don’t hesitate to further shorthand the shorthand, as has happened with at least three of Godin’s listed clichés.

“@TEOTD” is the shorthand acronym version of the cliché “At the end of the day,…”

“TOTB,” or “TOTBoxing,” conveys the same meaning as “Thinking outside of the box” 

“IIWII” means the same thing as the cliché “It is what it is.”

See, it’s just like the prisoner joke example of “shorthand.” We can communicate an originally complex thought or idea with the simple (and efficient) acronym version. In our techno lives, we do meaningfully communicate by acronyms all the time. From a purely efficient communications perspective, typing six characters instead of the 21 keystrokes required to write “At the end of the day” is unarguably more efficient.

My use of the term “acronym” here is not to be misconstrued as the innumerable acronyms used in all sorts of technology business communications. Random examples of what I consider “business acronyms” that are industry-, or tech-sector-specific include HSPA (High Speed Packet Access), ERIC (Emergency Response Interoperability Center), GIS (Geographic Information Systems), LTE (Long Term Evolution), and GITA (Geospatial Information & Technology Association).

Are clichés okay to use only in certain types of documents?

Perhaps cliché and acronym usage should have some sort of appropriateness assessment associated with where they are used. To that end, I have cut through the clutter (cliché alert!) to provide the following assignments of document types for cliché and acronym use.

Document Type Cliché Acronym (Texting) Acronym (Business)
Article No No See “Special Rule”
E-mail (business) No Limited, if any See “Special Rule”
E-mail (personal) Yes Yes Yes
Blog Limited, if any No See “Special Rule”
Press Release No No See “Special Rule”
Speech Limited, if any No Yes
Texting Yes Yes Yes
Tweet Yes Yes Yes
Webinar/
Presentation
Limited, if any No See “Special Rule”
White Paper No No See “Special Rule”

The Special Rule is that whenever a business acronym is used in a published document, always spell out the acronym’s meaning in parentheses at the first usage. Example: ATCA (Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture).

These are just guidelines, and they have no other validation except common sense, personal preferences, and my best writing practices as a 30-year editor.

I want to pay some attention to press releases. They are a unique document type because their form and writing style dictate following certain formalities. For example, the standard format for a press release requires that the first sentence in the body copy read something like this:

“ABC Company, a world leader in widget manufacture, today announced….” That parenthetical phrase is a super cliché! It has all the worst aspects of a cliché, too. It’s trite, boring, overused and, sometimes, it has more “truthiness” than fact.

One unwavering rule of good press release writing is that any self-promoting claims or assertions of qualities must be attributed to a person and written within quotation marks. Why is the first sentence an exception? Press releases are formulaic and, as such, invite clichés as everyone repetitiously follows the formulaic format requirements.

I have tried to write that opening line without the offending phrase but, every time, I get the document back from the client marked up to include it.

The prosaic formality of press releases also causes the infamous “About [Company]” boilerplate to be an undeserved must-have. It’s a paragraph-long cliché! Does it state anything meaningful or novel? It’s a stereotype that’s expected or predictable.

I can complain about these matters now, but I’ll admit that during my decades as a magazine editor, I actually looked for the “About [Company]” paragraph as an indicator that the release’s author knew the ropes on writing a proper news announcement.

What role does the target audience play in determining whether clichés are acceptable?

I’m a real stickler for identifying a document’s target audience. One reason is that, unless I know who the prospective reader of the document is, I can’t gauge acceptable usage of expressions like clichés – or even business acronyms.

Looking for audience sensitivity to clichés pays off. MarkeTech’s B2B high-tech audiences for its marketing/PR and web development services value a firm that “thinks outside the box.” Therefore, it’s an attribute that we hear a lot, and our response will echo that. One of our service marks (“Relentless Innovation”™) specifically emphasizes our outside-the-box qualifications. Perhaps your audiences have some degree of cliché tolerance or sensitivity, too.    

Can clichés contribute to Web 3.0’s “compelling content?”

Clichés will never make your content compelling. They are dull, meaningless and boring. Further, un-compelling content is easily interpreted as coming from a not-very-compelling company. In the interest of not throwing out the baby with the bath water (cliché alert!), let’s explore the concept that clichés are overused and worn out representations of what were once trendy and fresh catch phrases.

My concept is that the trendy buzzwords of today become future clichés by erosive use over time. Is there a new way to express “win-win?” Jeez, I hope so! This concept is consistent with the Wikipedia definition of a cliché as having “been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect…especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”

Based on that premise, here’s a novel spin on interpreting Godin’s cliché list. The list’s order is determined by what he and others consider “overuse.” The more votes for a particular cliché indicates how old and tired it is by its comparative ranking to others. Aren’t the ones at the bottom of the list fresher and less used than those clichés with the most votes at the top?

Therefore, aren’t the bottom-listed clichés less risky to use? Perhaps these show promise of still having some useful life. Maybe those ranked last are on their way to becoming tomorrow’s trendy buzzwords or compelling catch phrases.

A simple acid test is to search-engine query specific clichés to measure their usage. You will also be able to see if the word or phrase is being used in your specific marketplace. Many clichés come from other industries. As a matter of fact, the term “cliché” originated in typesetting.

Is Godin’s interpretation of clichés correct, that some make communicating “easier,” while others hide, obfuscate, lie, or confuse/avoid the issue?

I can’t escape commenting on Seth Godin’s interpretation of what using clichés represents. He’s saying that using clichés and buzzwords reflects writers who intend to obfuscate, lie, who are confused, are avoiding issues, or are even avoiding communications. These are quite farfetched conclusions.

In that context, I was somewhat startled to read his example of “…telling someone that a particular hedge fund is ‘highly leveraged’ is a lot easier than saying, ‘They’ve borrowed a lot of money in order to speculate and multiply their positive returns using other people’s money’.” Especially in today’s Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff, AIG, et. al. context, maybe using just the “easier” shorthand phrase “highly leveraged” has potential implications of obfuscation, avoiding issues, etc. So, then why is this usage okay with Godin?

The Wikipedia definition of what a cliché is includes: “But clichés are not always false or inaccurate; a cliché may or may not be true. Some are stereotypes, but some are simply truisms and facts.” These are innocuous issues, and shouldn’t be subject to Godin’s interpretation of dastardly motives for using a cliché.

Do explore Godin’s cliché list. It’s at http://www.squidoo.com/businesscliches. I captured his data and the copy editor uses it to flag those clichés. At the bottom of the web page, there’s a worthwhile list of other relevant information. Another resource is http://bighow.com/news/75-most-useful-acronyms-for-business-and-work-the-success-manual

Here are three websites that offer guides to acronyms for text messaging, Twitter messages, SMS, mobile, IM, etc.
http://www.freesearching.com/texting_a.htm
http://www.webopedia.com/quick_ref/textmessageabbreviations.asp#l
http://www.netlingo.com/

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