At some point — long, long ago — someone would say “bull in a china shop” and you would actually picture the scene. Here’s this bull, all big and mad and energetic. But he’s in a dainty little shop filled with delicate plates and teacups. You can picture it, you might even chuckle a little. And you would definitely remember that conversation.
But hear that same phrase today? You’d get the point, but the message doesn’t stick nearly as well. There’s no imagery to make the point extra clear. You register the phrase and what it means, but the benefits of the metaphor are washed out. You might as well be saying nothing. You basically are.
This is what a cliche is. And they’re insanely common in business. And they’re making you terrible at your job. Terrible? Yes. Talking in empty cliches makes you — and the things you say — forgettable.
Cliches are prevalent because they’re messy and hard to pin down. Nobody has grand authority on declaring a phrase a cliche. There’s a lot of grey area between clever metaphor and full-blown overused cliche. What might be wildly overused in one industry or geographic location might just be catching on in another. Especially in business, where there’s a ton of communication flying around. And business loves objective data — but pinpointing cliches is subjective and speculative. Until they start seeing cliches proven on some spreadsheet, most executives are going to carry on using them. And that’s a shame.
Or as Orin Hargraves puts it in “It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches.”
“The difficulty that arises in the very definition of cliché is that its principal characteristics—overuse and ineffectiveness—are not objectively measurable. What, exactly, constitutes overuse? Who is to be the judge of effectiveness? You will hardly find a definition of cliché that does not include these ideas, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to find an objective standard by which to gauge them.”
And it’s unfortunate, but business cliches are more than just an annoyance. They water down your communication. You know that feeling when you say a word a bunch of times in a row and it starts to sound different and meaningless? That’s what happens when you say “touch base” 80 times a day. Your words have no juice. You’re firing up a metaphor with no engine, with popped tires and a saggy bumper that looks like a frowny face.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Here are 13 common business cliches, why they’re terrible and what you can use instead.
1. Touch base
Why it’s terrible: A metaphor likely designed to make you imagine a baseball player re-establishing contact with a base before taking off down the field. But when’s the last time you heard “touch base” and pictured that scene? Also, best to avoid baseball metaphors in case you ever wind up working with people outside North America. They will likely be confused and bothered.
What to say instead: “Let’s follow up on this later.”
2. Circle back
Why it’s terrible: How do you circle anything? You can draw a circle around something, or “circle” something by surrounding it. But that has nothing to do with the intention of this phrase. Imagine if you never heard this before and someone said it to you — you’d be confused.
What to say instead: “Let’s all check up on the progress later on.”
3. Think outside the box
Why it’s terrible: Probably the king of the workplace cliches. I once overheard a guy in a Starbucks beckon the poor soul on the other end of his Skype call to “think like the box doesn’t even exist.” Deeeeeep, bro. Not only is the metaphor sufficiently pummeled to death, its origins are obscure and long-forgotten. Turns out, it stemmed from some mental exercise involving lines and dots. Guess what kind of thinking you had to do to solve the puzzle? Cute at the time? Sure. Stupid today.
What to say instead: “Maybe there’s a solution we haven’t considered yet.”
4. At the end of the day
Why it’s terrible: At the end of the day, it’s the end of the day. Trust me, a new one will start again. This cliche is an empty statement dressed up as a segue into something profound. The intention is to emphasize finality and long-term thinking. It’s a lame trick.
What to say instead: Skip it altogether. Because this phrase is meant to lead into some powerful statement. If the thing you’re saying is that important, just say it. Skip the empty intro. Steve Jobs never said, “at the end of the day, we created the iPhone.” If you created the iPhone, all you have to say is “we created the iPhone.”
5. Thrown under the bus
Why it’s terrible: Where is this bus? Are we all on the bus? Who’s driving? And am I the only one who’s wondered how you throw someone under a moving bus? Logistically it seems complicated. But maybe the bus isn’t moving, in which case getting thrown under doesn’t seem so severe.
What to say instead: “Took the blame.”
6. On my plate
Why it’s terrible: Another overused metaphor. Nobody pictures a crowded plate anymore when they hear this.
What to say instead: “I’m too busy right now.”
7. Drop the ball
Why it’s terrible: Not only is it an overused sports metaphor, it’s a soften-the-blow cliche. Which is cowardly and unnecessary. If you’re going to blame Josh for something, just say so.
What to say instead: “I blame Josh.”
8. Game changer
Why it’s terrible: Sigh, another sports metaphor. Too bad in sports actual “game changers” are few and far between (star QB breaks his arm). Maybe cloud computing is, in fact, a game changer. Your new HR handbook is not (OK, Valve’s is).
What to say instead: “This new thing is going to be really important for our future.”
9. I don’t have the bandwidth
Why it’s terrible: This is a big cop out. You’re basically saying you’re too busy, or not cut out for the job.
What to say instead: “I’m too busy and I’m not cut out for the job.”
10. The Uber of …
Why it’s terrible: Uber didn’t become Uber by framing their business model over someone else’s. Just say what the new company does.
What to say instead: “X company helps Y customers do Z.”
Why it’s terrible: A cabinetry metaphor? That’s more exclusive than a sports metaphor.
What to say instead: “This idea connects nicely with each other.”
12. Batting 1,000
Why it’s terrible: Here’s a list of MLB players with a career batting average of 1,000: ___ . Short list, huh? Nobody is batting 1,000. Facebook isn’t batting 1,000, Apple isn’t batting 1,000. Batting 1,000 would mean every potential customer in your market is already a lifetime customer paying the top amount.
What to say instead: “We’re hitting all the goals we set.”
13. Manage expectations
Why it’s terrible: Another giant cop-out cliche. Careful of these cliches. Because the meaninglessness of the cliche can be leveraged to admit to something you’d otherwise be embarrassed to say plainly.
What to say instead: “I’m not up for the job.”
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