Why cliches mean your content is being seen but not heard

David Mitchell dressed as William Shakespeare

Why cliches mean your content is being seen but not heard

“It’s like pulling teeth out of a stone with no blood,” said our Head of Labs James Wood to me this week. He may have been talking about glacial indecision but it could easily have been a commentary on stopping marketers churning out cliche-ridden copy.

How many times this year have you read something starting with “In these challenging times…”? Sometimes, the times are testing. Troubled. Uncertain. Unprecedented even. And in this new normal, whatever is being pedalled is really important: now, more than ever. At least it’s a relief from this fast-paced digital world. 

The cliche is getting us nowhere and, in content marketing, our clients need us to get ahead. 

As old as dust 

Cliches can date back centuries, long outliving the time or place they sprung from, falling into the common lexicon perhaps as TV catchphrases or lines from the stage. Just look at how many can be traced back to Shakespeare: “Neither here nor there” (Othello), “wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet), and “Mum’s the word” (Henry VI), to name a few. 

Major events can have a powerful effect on language as we strive to define the world around us. World War II, for example, brought “radar” into everyday vernacular. Now, we’re searching for words that define where we find ourselves in 2020. “We’re ping-ponging from hyper-utilitarian to hyper-emotional” in our efforts to express things, says Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s perhaps no wonder that we’ve ended up finding comfort in cliche. 

We step “on to one of these clumpy islands we call cliches with the knowledge that it is a place of safety,” says lexicographer Orin Hargraves. “The familiarity of cliches is their greatest attraction.” It is also this familiarity that puts us in danger of our audiences tuning out.

Hold your horses

Pandemic or not, cliches are bad news for marketing copy. When you use a cliche there is little chance of being misunderstood — but is that the same thing as being heard? A cliche should be veered away from precisely because, warns the novelist Rivka Galchen, it “obstructs thinking, obscures evil and turns us into unknowing automatons”. 

Cliches, like idioms, their equally harangued brethren, can help us as writers to express something with more colour and conciseness than a laboured literal expression. Yet their meaning is often so dulled that the chance of cut through with the audience is slim. 

We want our writing to inspire imagery. Cliches short circuit the reader’s imagination, signposting the meaning without effort. Cliches are marketing copy’s kiss of death for they render the writing immemorable. 

At the end of the day 

It is the writer’s job to plunder the plethora of words at our disposal and find a way to describe something differently. This year alone, more than 650 new words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, covering categories from cryptography to biscuits. There’s certainly no shortage.

So, the next time you contemplate telling your audience to embrace something, consider instead encouraging them to adopt, to support or just to bloody use it. Perhaps it’s time to ready your people, rather than empower them. And maybe swerve accelerating change, and instead create a surge. See a trend mushroom rather than rise. 

It’s a wake-up call for tired turns of phrase. In content marketing, it’s vital that audiences remember what we’ve written because — as they say — actions speak louder than words. 

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Content marketing Thought Leadership

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Colin Gentry

Head of Content

I'm the Head of Content at Earnest, with a background in content marketing and consultancy for brands such as Chanel, Oxfam and Glastonbury Festival. My dog is much more interesting.