Wake Up and Smell the Cliché

We owe it to those we work with to make every effort to say what we are really thinking. The trendy buzz phrases used by so many deny our thirst for open communication and stop us saying what we really mean.

So what is the worst cliché you’ve ever heard?

Mine has to be the time I was attending a fraught meeting where things had begun to get rather heated, especially between two excitable managers.

After some minutes of this, one manager – red-faced and very, very pompous – eventually stood up and stormed: “For Chrissake, Simon, just get off my critical path!”

Get off my critical path? Whatever was he talking about?

Of course, you’ve heard these sorts of clichés before. Let’s have a quick roll call of the most tedious:

  • “Level playing field…”
  • “Ball park figure…”
  • “Singing off the same hymn sheet…”
  • “Put it on the back burner…”
  • “Picking low hanging fruit…”
  • “Quick wins…”

Be honest. Which ones have you used?

Isn’t Communication Important?

Whenever we work with managers or front-line people, the need for more communication heads the list on any flip-chart. But this word ‘communication’ is too easy to reach for. Is there really not enough communication, or too much of the wrong sort of communication? Managers – and their staff – often do take the time to meet, formally and informally, so why do people feel that so little communication exists?

Our belief is that too many business conversations are reduced to an absurd patter of mid-Atlantic one-liners.

Why do I get so irritated with these expressions? Aren’t they just part of the ‘Lingua Franca’ of the working world? Well no, they’re not. I happen to think they are very dangerous, but don’t take my word for it, listen to what the writer, Alain de Botton, has to say about it:

“The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. Clichés are detrimental in so far as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. All this matters because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel…”

A Case of Meaningless Feedback

The trouble with clichés is that they are too easy to reach for. Too perfect. Too pat. Rather than speak to each other and say exactly what we mean, we employ some hackneyed sentence to do it for us. And in the same way that a cliché never exactly represents the shape of our thought, eventually our whole manner of speaking fails to represent the intent of our message.

Shall I give you an example? Somebody completes a piece of delegated work for you. You call them in and you say, “That presentation you did this morning was spot on, Catherine. Thanks for that.”

But what exactly has this told Catherine? That the work was well thought of? Well yes, and the fact that the manager took the time to thank her is laudable in itself. But where is the learning that Catherine needs to have reinforced? Where have the good behaviours been identified so that she can replicate them at the next presentation? All hidden behind the manager’s hollow platitude: “Spot on”.

How much better if the manager’s feedback had been along the lines of, “Excellent presentation, Catherine. I particularly liked the way you backed up your key points with last month’s market research. What do you feel went well?”

Suddenly the praise seems all the more sincere, focused and helpful to Catherine. Not some dreadful cliché that has no meaning for anyone.

Of course it can get worse. There are some whose every sentence carries the overused phrase, and sometimes (and we’re talking real experts here…) they can spit out a succession of feeble-minded junk:

“Right, I think we’re ready to move forward on this one so let’s start throwing around some ball park figures, and then recap our game plan so we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet. I need all the guys to know they’re on a level playing field, but performance is the bottom line and OTE just means a ticket to the ball game. So let’s cut to the chase on this one. I need 110% commitment. If we don’t wake up and smell the coffee the deal will go belly up big time. And if push comes to shove, we’re gonna find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Savvy?”

‘Savvy’, indeed. But the fact is I didn’t savvy. Surely we owe it to our team and our colleagues to make the effort to speak without resorting to the trite and the meaningless.

If we don’t think they’re important enough then maybe it’s time for us to get off their critical path.

Training and Management Books

With our publishing partners.