Mind-numbing. Teeth-grinding. Bone-wrenching. I'm talking about clichés.
Slicing down like sleet, 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 heard them again. The first time someone said "one day at a time," a caveperson stopped, thought deeply about the sentiment, and decided to spend more time with his or her cavekids.
The sixteenth time the phrase was used, a medieval princess stopped pining for her knight and started focusing on her inner child.
But the four hundred and three billionth time it was said, no one heard it. For, by then, the words meant nothing.
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, can you imagine what it would be like?
OK, now let me take a shot.
There's a silver luxury car driving fast on a winding road next to the ocean. A narrator tells you about the new ZJ487C, which surrounds you with comfort and speed. 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."
Was mine close to yours? 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 bet 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. It doesn't happen. No one knows these people. None of it resonates. None of it will drive a prospective customer to jump off the couch and yell, "I must save for my retirement while eating a waffle!"
Eight Reasons to Not Use Clichés
OK, let's get specific. 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, even sooner than they might otherwise.
- They're a "cop out." It doesn't take skill to use them. They basically indicate that the user was too lazy to be creative or pull the thesaurus off the shelf.
- They're confusing. Because they're ambiguous, clichés can mean a million things to a million people. Use uniquely appropriate words.
- They're flat. Clichés aren't vivid. They do not stimulate the senses.
- They have no emotional impact. Since we've heard them before, they don't cause our hearts to skip a beat.
- 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 is to 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? Don't show us another winding road.
- 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 without using one cliché.
What to Do? Get Real!
I suggest using a technique that I call the Real Emotional Language for the Audience's Life, or REAL. (OK, so it should be RLEAL, but that would make a terrible acronym.) REAL is about communicating sincerely—one human being to another.
Using this approach, communication 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. 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 department and level. Most important, whatever we do will be done with one objective: never being in this position again."
Notice that there's 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 cared about and trusted. Therefore, they'll be more willing to listen and act.
And, isn't that the whole point?
The Get Real Approach
The Get REAL approach has five steps:
- First, learn everything you can about your audience. Answer questions like these: "What do they believe?" "What do they care about?" "What's a typical day in their life like?" and "What's most important to them?" To do so, use interviews, observation, focus groups, surveys and past experience with them.
- Next, find the commonalities among their responses.
- Paying attention to those commonalities, craft sincere language to reach the audience.
- Measure the effectiveness of your communication. Just as the best communication is two-way, so is the best measurement. Therefore, don't rely on numbers like how many people bought your product or how many employees read your Web article. Instead, ask your audience whether they understood the communication, what they thought of it and what effect it had on them.
- Use their feedback in preparing future communication.
Why Get Real?
There's so much manipulation out there. Just check out any newspaper ad or radio or television commercial. Most people know it, and they're sick of it. They're sick of the fine print and the lightning-fast disclaimers at the end of radio commercials. People are starving for sincerity.
So, if you want to reach people, be sincere. If you want to get people to act, be sincere. If you want people to believe you, be sincere. They'll know if you're not. And they'll remember it when they walk in the grocery store or get a call from a 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. Get REAL.