Beware the business cliché

October 21, 2013 • 4 minute read

The term cliché comes from typesetting. In the old days, French printers recognized that writers often used the same phrases over and over again. So, to spare themselves the labor of setting the phrase each time letter-by-letter, they saved it in a block. The clamp that held it together was called a cliché. Hand set type is long gone, but clichés are more popular than ever.

Every month it seems like a new cliché slips into the business lexicon, a new turn of phrase that aptly describes a familiar dynamic or situation. At first, it actually improves communication because it gets a point across succinctly. But then it takes on a life of its own, spreading like a virus.

Mercifully, most of these epidemics reach a peak of overuse, then gradually fade away. Think: “paradigm shift,” “outside-the-box,” or “turnkey solution.” But there are always more business clichés in the offing. Lately, we’ve noticed the phrase “block and tackle” cropping up with increasing frequency. This one is particularly annoying, because it has multiple meanings and it kinda sorta doesn’t really make sense.

When somebody says, “I want someone who can block and tackle,” the image that first springs to mind (in the US anyway) is one of football linemen. But when you think about it, blocking and tackling are actually opposing roles — one offensive, one defensive. They’re not usually performed by the same side, at least not at the same time, so the metaphor is not entirely clear. Maybe the intent is to describe menial grunt work, less glamorous than that of so-called “skill positions” like quarterback and receiver. That would make sense, but there may be other forces at work here.

block and tackle is also a system of ropes and pulleys used to gain mechanical advantage, common to boats and sailing ships. So, the speaker might be looking for a resource that would provide analogous service—a force multiplier—which would be quite different from simple grunt work … though both may or may not involve heavy lifting. See what I mean? This may be a case of usage jumping the tracks. A speaker uses the term in the mechanical sense, the listener hears a football analogy, and communication breaks down. Verbal shorthand intended to facilitate communication actually introduces potential confusion.

Block and tackle (in the mechanical context) is akin to biggest business cliché of all time: leverage. “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the earth.” OK, Archimedes, but how would you leverage the earth? It depends on how you’re using the word, and it has quite a few meanings. For Wall Street, it’s debt. For law firms, it’s staffing ratios. Vladimir Putin recently used it in a controversial New York Times opinion piece as a more palatable euphemism for “power.” In many other cases it simply means “use.” The term is so threadbare it’s become effectively meaningless. (I’ll concede that contesting the use of leverage as a verb is a lost cause, and I’m not the first to observe that verbing wierds language.)

The point is though, effective communication — and especially business communication — is essentially about clarity, brevity and thoughtfulness. Clichés gain traction in the first place because they’re concise and easy to use, but they lose value quickly through overuse. We start to use them reflexively, fumbling for them when at a loss for words. But what at first seemed clever soon becomes trite.

So, how to avoid clichés? Stop and think, basically. Clichés get used when people are going too fast. When writing, it’s a question of pausing to consider what you really mean. It’s fast and easy to plug in an overused expression, but it takes time to pause and consider the finer implications of a phrase. Most people don’t make the extra effort, but those who do stand out.

Speech, of course, is a little bit trickier. When in a public speaking situation—whether at an event or in a one-on-one business meeting — we often feel a sense of urgency. The reflective part of the brain shuts down and there’s a sense of need to fill any voids with words. Clichés are the easiest way to fill the gap.

Roger Ebert’s stellar autobiography “Life Itself” contains critical guidance on this point from an unlikely authority: John Wayne. Early in his career, Wayne realized that if he only had a few lines in a picture, the best way to maximize their value (i.e. get more screen time) was to say them as slowly as possible. It makes a lot of sense, and the result is not just effective, it’s iconic. Think about it: If … you … want … people … to … listen … to … you … pilgrim … say … the … words … slower.

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