Words, when at their best, should be seducing you.
Take this sentence: “She felt his warm breath on the back of her neck, like the brush of fur.”
You can immediately visualise what’s happening, right?
The problem with words is when we start over-using certain phrases.
It’s when they start becoming clichés.
We all do this from time to time. Sometimes, even our own phrases end up being used far too often.
Since they’re so common, how do we go about making friends with clichés so they’ll benefit our copy?
And how do you stop clichés presenting you as someone you’re not?
Which someone is that?
When being original changed
So what is a cliché anyway? How does a word full of images become something you want to run away from?
Well, let’s think about a few of the clichés out there already. Here are a few:
Raising the bar
The sky’s the limit
Kill two birds with one stone
A bull in a china shop
All hands on deck
Think out of the box
At some point in time, before these words became clichés, each one was doing a perfect job of evoking an image in the reader’s mind.
Think about the phrase ‘all hands on deck.’
You can picture in your mind a group of people coming together and acting as one to make something happen.
You think ‘ship’ when you think of ‘deck’, so you imagine a crew scrambling to get their ship ready.
Unfortunately, most people don’t think of ships anymore when they think of ‘all hands on deck.’
And when your mind stops associating images with certain phrases, that’s when the phrase has come a cliché.
The phrase loses its ability to conjure up metaphors.
Nowadays, people simply reach for these words without thinking anything fo them.
This is how George Orwell described the problem:
“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.”
What edge you lose
Do we really want our copy turned into a “huge dump of worn-out metaphors” and lacking in power and energy when read?
No, of course not.
If you’re hoping to be taken seriously, you’ve got to try and avoid using clichés.
You want your copy to feel original to read and engaging to readers. You want every phrase and sentence to resonate, instead of being skimmed over without any emotional reaction.
Even if you’re just providing instructions, you still want what you say to be enjoyable to read and leave a good impression.
But when existing clichés abound, it can be hard to know what to use and what to avoid.
Take back your power
How do you know if you’re using a clichés anyway? Here are some clues:
- If the phrase you’re using evokes zero imagery, for instance something like ‘shoot for the moon’
- If you’ve seen the phrase used elsewhere, or heard someone else use it (as is common with clichés)
- If your phrase feels trendy or “in the now”
And when you’ve spotted a cliché, what should you do next? Should you strike it from your copy? Not necessarily.
Instead of scribbling them out, all you should do is try and explain what you actually mean by the cliché.
Here’s what I mean:
- Instead of saying the sky’s the limit, you could explain how your project has many fascinating directions it could go in.
- Instead of killing two birds with one stone, tell your readers how your new idea will solve two distinct problems at the same time.
- If there is a bull in a china shop, proudly share how your latest idea shook up conventional thinking in your field and made your readers stop and stare.
That’s how you should be using clichés.
Where to go next
Clichés are ultimately for lazy writers. You don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t care about their copy or has a limited vocabulary.
True, creating new copy is hard to do. But it doesn’t have to be, if you can have fun with it.
Look for phrases no one else is using. Develop your own way of explaining things. Use clichés to help share with your readers all the amazing, interesting facts about your business and how you can help them succeed.