Why you should avoid clichés like the plague

“If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.” Hugh MacLeod, author and cartoonist

Advertising Age (marketing industry trade mag) published an article a couple of years ago where they cited a survey saying that fewer than 25% of people have any trust in the marketing messages they read. That means three-quarters of your potential customers have no trust that the things you tell them on your website or any other marketing materials.

I think that overusing horrible clichéd language is partly to blame. We spend so much time trying to sound ‘big and clever’ that we forget about being clear and focused what our customer actually wants from us.

As I’ve said many times, consumers want clarity and relevance. Not fancy jumped up phrases.

So what is a cliché?

They are words or expressions that have lost their meaning over time. They are overused, and to a reader, they become empty ‘white noise’. The other problem is that they lack specificity and so your web or brochure text just becomes the same old gubbins that everyone else uses too.

E.g. One-stop-shop

Let’s take an overused phrase like one-stop-shop. Instead, you could say something like ‘from A to Z', or 'we sell everything', or 'whatever you need, we’ve got it covered' or 'emporium'.

Cliché: "Your one stop for all your construction equipment needs."
Alternative: "If it digs, lifts, clears, builds or grades, we’ve got it covered."

E.g. World-class, innovative, cutting-edge etc.

Things like world-class, innovative, cutting-edge, next-generation are scattered around websites like a muck spread on a wheat field. The rule of thumb here is that if you wouldn’t say it in conversation, get rid of it. You wouldn't say, "Would you like a cup of world-class tea?" Would you?

Cliché: Cutting-edge innovation that defines meetings of the future (yuk)
Alternative: We’ve found a way to make meetings more productive for everyone.

Specific pet hates:

Robust - as in, robust processes. This adjective should only be used to describe red wine.

Giving 110% - unless you’re a contestant on the Apprentice, don’t even think about it.

Strategic - as in, ‘we build strategic partnerships with the best in the business’. Unless you can explain the difference between a ‘partnership’ or a ‘strategic partnership’, get rid of it.

Every industry sector has its own clichés

Virtually every sector has overused language, and it’s good to challenge yourself to be more aware of what you’re writing. The thing to do here is:

  • Spend some time looking at your materials and identify words and phrases that are overused. Also, take a look at the language of your competitors and see if they are using similar phrases.
  • See if you can come up with some alternatives words and phrases that are simpler and more meaningful.
  • Focus on clarity and simplicity. In this example, I swapped out a clichéd metaphor ‘sold like hotcakes’ and replaced it with something clear and specific.

Cliché: Our product sold like hotcakes.
Alternative: We sold out in just a week.