Why we Speak and Write in Cliches and Common Phrases

How many people in your workplace use distinctive words when speaking or writing? Here's a wild guess: damn few, if any. That I'm sure is the case even if you earn your keep in an exceptional workplace.

That's because we all speak in common phrases and cliches - not to mention that dreadful industry parlance. When it comes to communication, people resemble parrots. We walk around repeating the same tired words and phrases. One person's PowerPoint presentation or white paper is very much interchangeable with just about anybody else's.

But Why is this the Case?

There are at least three prominent reasons.

1) Cliches and common phrases are easily understood and - the best ones - deliver a lot meaning in very few words, which is one of the principles of good writing and speaking.

2) We are rewarded with a sense of kinship when sharing the same vernacular. That sense of belonging is no small matter to most people.

3) We don't expend the effort required to achieve originality. Speaking and writing with a distinctive voice takes work - more work that most of us are willing to invest.

The problem is that walking and talking and writing like a human parrot turns you into an indistinguishable voice in an immense choir. That's the last thing you want when trying to establish your identity in a competitive workplace. It's the person with the distinctive voice whose ideas will stand out and be heard, not the person whose speaking and writing is so much more white noise. Fresh ideas have to be expressed in language as fresh as the idea itself.

Most cliches and common phrases are terrific statements invented long ago, adopted by the masses, and endlessly repeated. For example, to say I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place is widely understood and would take many more words to express if we tried to avoid the cliche. Ditto for a Catch-22 situation. Try explaining what a Catch-22 situation is and compare the word count. Ditto for bull in a china shop.

Given that, it's easy to rationale that it makes sense to use widely understood phrases that economize on words. After all, being clear and brief are two key principles of good communication.

Industry parlance or jargon works much the same. Join a new industry and you will not truly feel part of the team until you've learned that industry's lexicon and use it as fluidly and understandably as your colleagues. To do anything else would put you out of step with the crowd, and most people don't have the sense of self to step away from the crowd. Being an individual, being an original, takes backbone. We also fear that if we walk to the beat of our own drum we might not be considered a team player by our colleagues.

One of my all-time favorite quotes sums it up: "Man's unique agony as a species consists of his perpetual conflict between the desire to stand out and the need to blend in."

Standing out also takes effort. You need to actually think about what you're about to say or write. Foolishly, most people don't see that as a good investment of time and energy. They spend more time and energy wondering why they're not really being heard and why they're not advancing professionally.

Originality also requires imagination, and we haven't all been imbued with that talent. Still, there are ways. We don't have to speak and write with the sledgehammer impact of a Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis or Tom Wolfe. Rather, if we can stud our speech and writing with simple, intermittent, standout phrases, the impact is likely to be more pronounced than we might imagine - just as a single great guitar riff can make an entire song memorable.

So let's give it a try. Let's try to freshen up the language. Let's find substitutes for the trite and tired.

Mike Consol is president of (, which provides corporate training seminars in four categories: 1) verbal communication skills, 2) PowerPoint presentation skills, 3) business writing workshops, 4) media training. He is also the creator and host of the radio talk-show Boomtown Business on KDOW (AM 1220) in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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