Clients often express horror and disgust at the idea of using a cliché in an interview. They feel, as serious professionals, that they should not be using what they see as trite, overused and near meaningless phrases to talk about their important issues.
Well, there are some clichés I hate and would never use but in general, I find clichés very useful.
This is a subject that divides Media Coach trainers. Some of these professional wordsmiths, whose writing skills were honed at Reuters and the BBC, are reluctant to write anything that might be seen as ‘lazy’. Others, like me, are delighted when technical arguments can be turned into colloquial language that anyone would instantly understand.
A knee-jerk dismissal of clichés is, for me, an arrogance of the chattering classes. Clichés communicate meaning quickly and in a way that is familiar and inclined to provoke empathy. Clearly, that is not true if it is your pet hate cliché. Mine is ‘at the end of the day’ which I once counted 17 times in one interview on Radio 4. I gather I am not alone, in a 2009 survey it was named the most annoying cliché ever. But phrases such as:
‘It’s like buses, nothing for an hour then three come all at once’
‘Horses for courses’
‘There is no one size fits all’
‘There’s a time and place for such things’
‘It’s a game of two halves’
…all of these are instantly recognised in the UK and communicate meaning very quickly.
Owned by the people
A former colleague and BBC Newsnight Arts Correspondent, Madeleine Holt, says clichés are bad news unless they ‘owned by the people and rooted in our history and common parlance’. She cites ‘don’t rob Peter to pay Paul’ as being a good example. She avoids, in messaging, anything that echoes known ‘spun’ phrases. So ‘Education, Education, Education’ she sees as having strong echoes of the Blair era of spin and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, we would probably all agree that ‘green shoots of recovery’ should not be used because when Norman Lamont used it he was lying, or perhaps misguided. Either way, the folk memory has negative connotations.
Another former colleague, Laura Shields, who now runs her own training consultancy in Brussels, wrote a whole blog for us on how ‘game-changer’ was a grossly overused and now a meaningless phrase. I happen to completely disagree with her!
Oliver Wates, once a senior editorial figure in Reuters and our go-to person on written style, is inclined to wield the red pen when it comes to clichés. He likes to challenge my use of clichés, particularly in written work.
Despite the prejudices of these very clever people, I will continue to advocate the judicious use of clichés, and why – because I am always seeing my carefully chosen and suggested phrases in the write-up of my clients interviews. Journalists are actually very predictable and rarely turn down a good cliché.
This article is a rewrite of a post on my blog in 2014.