You Can Talk About Innovation Without Resorting to Cliches9 February, 2016 / Articles
A cliché is fresh for a day.
Clichés aren’t born as clichés. They come into the world as poetry, a new way of talking and thinking and seeing. The first person to say “kick the bucket” to mean “die,” for instance, was on to something big.
Then a few people adopt the term. For a brief while, using it becomes an exercise in linguistic hipness. Eventually, the masses notice that something funky is happening and crash the language party. And before long, a once-sparkling phrase has gone all Woo Woo on us.
If you’ve ever run “raise the bar” — or any other conversation-clogging cliché — up the proverbial flagpole, you know what I’m talking about. Those who occupy even the smallest corner of the innovation “space” will sooner or later use such terms.
The thing to remember is that, in time, all clichés weaken. They are what George Orwell, in his ever-fresh “Politics and the English Language”, calls “dying metaphors.” It’s what Nietzsche gets at when he says “truths” are “illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal.”
In short: You can’t buy much of anything with a cliché.
Unfortunately, quite a few people in the innovation business think you can. Often these accomplished business people, who know how to scale ideas successfully, are deceived into thinking that the increase in a term’s popular adoption is a sign of power. Why? It may be, as Dan Pallotta points out, the use of certain terms is rooted in an inferiority complex. Or it may be because their skill with words lags behind their expertise in product or software design. Or because they’re desperate to sell the idea to their bosses, or the public, and think some crazy-sexy-buzzy words will work some magic. One thing’s for sure: Many innovation-minded people understand success here purely as a numbers game. To them, the number of users matters, not uniqueness.
This isn’t the way it works with language. With language it’s about quality, and if your organization is going to be regularly speaking with the public on the available communications platform, you or some literary person at your organization had better know, and act on, that knowledge. Language success is about freshness, not scale.
A good motto for building linguistic freshness can be found in Ezra Pound’s definition of literature: “news that stays news.” You want to invest in words that will retain their value. The fact that both people and organizations converse in real time, all the time, means that our language investments are serious business. If you’re speaking in pure cliché, it’ll be obvious and will put people off or lose their attention. It creates distaste, indifference — stuff you don’t want to produce.
However, all this is easier said than written. Very few people are capable of penning lasting works of literature (and certainly not every time they sit down to tweet). But — and this is very important — we can take steps to ensure our words are not stale. We’d do well to keep in mind two of Orwell’s principles:
- “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” If your figurative language is familiar, be contemptuous of it — and hit the delete key. Most people are quite content to allow the familiar to lodge in language. Good writers refuse to be so accommodating. As you edit your stuff, identify the clichés and work to find good, original replacements for them. No more “moving the needle,” OK? What is this, 1952? Such selection can be difficult work, but it can be quite profitable.
- “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Yes, in this slice of advice, Orwell comes off a tad bit peevish and provincial. Sometimes a foreign phrase can be le mot juste. But he’s right in wanting us to ditch the fancy in favor of the plain, simple, and straightforward. (He was, in essence, warning against using exotic, alienating terms to sound ) You got that, growth hackers? Pivot away from the nonsense. Doing so will force your prose in the direction of clarity, which is, almost always, the direction you want your literary GPS to point.
The main idea, innovators: When it comes to creating interesting words, the kind of stuff that will draw a significant audience and win their attention and trust, you need to follow a special model. Look to literature, not advertising or public relations or corporate communications. Literature compels attention because those who write it are committed to making their language as fresh as they possibly can. Follow suit, and people will notice the original, human, interesting tone of your work — and they will respond not in the way they respond to ads, but in the way they respond to great poems, stories, plays: with gratitude. You can build a career, a business, even a new product line on a base of such gratitude. Do so.