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The Way I See It… Business Clichés


Michael Heath of Michael Heath Consulting makes the case for plain English.

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 pompous – eventually stood up and stormed: “For Chrissake, Simon, just get off my critical path!”

Get off my critical path - what was he talking about?

You have heard these sorts of clichés before:
* Level playing field
* Ball park figure
* Singing off the same hymn sheet
* Put it on the back burner
* Ducks in a row
* Picking low hanging fruit
* Quick wins

Too many business conversations are reduced to an absurd patter of throw-away one-liners.

The trouble with clichés is that they are too easy to reach for; too pat.

As writer Alain de Botton, put it: “The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones."

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 work for you. You call them in and you say: “That presentation you did to the team this morning was spot on, Catherine. Thanks for that.”

But what exactly has this told Catherine?

Where have the good behaviours been identified so that she can replicate them at the next presentation? All hidden behind the manager’s empty phrase “spot on”.

Much better would have been: “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. Not some throwaway plaudit that has no meaning for anyone.

Of course there are some whose every sentence carries the over-used phrase, those who can spin out a rapid-fire succession of meaningless verbiage:

“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. Savvy?”

Savvy indeed.

Whenever I'm confronted with this sort of approach I’m tempted to ask whether the use of such language is a desperate attempt to be seen as ‘on message’ with the working world, or a ploy to try to look energetic and motivating while avoiding saying anything of real worth?

Start today: ditch those clichés:
* For tips on how to avoid clichés try the Plain English Campaign’s website at
* In your meetings, question what people exactly mean when they use a business cliché.
* Make a cliché box with fines for using clichés

Once you stop using clichés, you’ll start to relate your thoughts and feelings with infinitely more accuracy.

Surely we owe it to our team and our colleagues to make the effort to speak without resorting to the trite and the meaningless?


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