The cliché is one of the most hated phrases of language found in writing of all types, from the great American novel to the simplest marketing blog post. Editors, writers, and readers cringe at the sight of overused phrases. But even though writers shouldn't use trite phrases to meet their word count or make up for a creativity gap, we argue there is a time, place, and art to using clichés.
Well-known turns of phrase provide a familiarity and level of connection in marketing material that sometimes can't be achieved with original or inventive content. Understanding the balance of connecting with customers and sounding stereotyped helps establish a certain authority and innovation in your writing.
To use clichés effectively, you must not rely on them as a crutch. Integrate them wisely and exhibit creativity in all other areas of your content.
Origin of the Cliché
The word "cliché" has origins in the French newspaper business. Some of the first printing presses used moveable type, or a system of putting letters one by one into an iron cast. The French devised single slugs of metal with frequently used words and phrases to use rather than put words together individually every time. The word "cliché" is reminiscent of the sound those casts made when used. The most commonly used words and phrases came to be known as clichés.
The word "cliché" now holds a great deal of negative connotation. But how does a phrase end up with this unfortunate reputation?
Some people believe that a group of words becomes a cliché when it loses meaning or emotion. After so many appearances, an expression goes from inciting imagery and emotion to being glossed over and even scoffed at.
Clichés come naturally to every writer because they're an easy way to get a point across without any real work.
Instead of writing with lengthy or descriptive language to express that two people who are nothing alike have somehow found their way to one another, you can simply say, "Opposites attract." The intention of that phrase is instant and immediate to the reader. Some might see that as lazy, but some might see it as speaking a universal language.
A cliché creates an instant connection between a writer's intention and a reader's experience.
The Time and Place of It All
If a writer finds himself using an abundance of clichés in everything he does, he needs to reevaluate his writing style. However, if he uses them sparingly in the appropriate situations, the clichés can demonstrate his mastery of language and writing, especially if he is using less common idioms not dripping in melodramatics.
These are three of the best times to use clichés effectively.
- When communicating a complicated topic to a broad audience. The familiarity of a commonly used phrase will quickly translate whatever the product or service provides into a relatable point of reference. Introductory marketing material used in the awareness stage can take full advantage of clichéd terminology. The trick is to not overuse the same cliché across all marketing material. If your product really does accomplish an impressive feat "at the touch of a button," then say that once in the place that needs it most. Saying that in a technical whitepaper for a more specific audience isn't going to be as useful as writing it in a promotional headline.
- When expressing humor. Self-awareness is a greatly appreciated characteristic of some marketing content. Using humor, clichés, and funny expressions are an easy way to gain trust, interest readers, and launch a creative campaign. Playing with clichés and reframing them to fit your offering can show you don't take yourself too seriously. The cliché is also a great entry point for displaying your knowledge of the world, your product, and customer needs.
- When creating a conversational tone. If you use clichés in your conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, you might not even realize it. There are some clichés that have come to permeate our vernacular to the point of being the only way you communicate an idea. If that is true, using a cliché of this nature establishes an informal and comfortable tone. Sometimes, the best way to present an idea to an audience is the way you would tell a friend, and that often includes using our favorite (and possibly overused) expressions.
However, remember to be a writer first. If there is a more straightforward way to say or write something, use that instead of a cliché.
Direct language is the best for communicating with anyone, including customers, coworkers, or strangers. And sometimes, a cliché is the most direct route to your idea. The most cliché things we say in the workplace shouldn't be used in confusing or frustrating situations. But in an email to a team, you can say you have "a lot on your plate" or you are "going back to the drawing board." There's nothing wrong with that. Your coworkers know exactly what those phrases mean without your having to go into detail.
If you do find using clichés fits your marketing style, ensure you are using valuable ones.
The best example of quality clichés comes from Shakespeare. Although he originated the sayings, their popularity and depth of have transcended hundreds of years, thousands of situations, and various human conditions.
For example, "break the ice" still indicates getting comfortable in a new setting. "Wear my heart upon my sleeve" elegantly expresses emotional transparency. And writers of all types can still learn from "brevity is the soul of wit."
Those expressions have been used both flippantly and seriously in writing of all kinds and everyday conversations, but their meanings have never been considered invalid or worthless. That is the power of language when it is well crafted. It creates an instant connection between a writer's intention and a reader's experience.
When used well, a cliché from any era can do the same.
The beauty of the cliché is sometimes a borrowed and famed expression can say it better than new words can.