Thinking outside of the box (and other clichés)

For better or worse, fairly or not, others judge us by our words…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

For better or worse, fairly or not, others judge us by our words.

For many of us, the written word is our first impression and often our only impression on clients, employers, political leaders and business partners – among many others.

And emails, posts and various listings or announcements are usually our first and only contact with most people.

We usually, maybe always, want to make a positive, memorable impact.

My wife used to tell me that I was a master of the first impression – and she didn’t mean it as a compliment.

But if you want to make a positive impression, and by that I mean, convince the person you are talking or writing to that you are capable, insightful and irreplaceable, do not, and I mean DO NOT, resort to dated, clumsy or awkward cliches and jargon.

Your metaphors should be crisp, memorable and relevant, and most of all, yours.

I know that we are in the last half of 2020, but consider some of these cringe-worthy phrases from way back in 2019 and try not to marvel or judge how stale or even offensive they might be.

Remember “break down the silos”? The term “silo” is interesting because we don’t see very many farm metaphors in the business world. There’s a reason for that; a silo is a tall structure designed to hold grain. They are common in the Mid-west – but in the jargon of organizations, “silos” have come to mean non-intersecting circles of communication.

How “breaking down the silos” is a helpful image is beyond my comprehension. Communicating better or across departments might be a clearer way of putting an emphasis on sharing information.

How about “pushing the envelope”? Or one of my personal (un)favorites: “drinking the Kool-Aid.” This is a reference to a mass murder/suicide cult of the late 1970s that led to the deaths of over 900 people.

I am biased here, but my sense is that ANYTHING from the 1970s, from fashion statements, to music references to yes, a murder/suicide cult tragedy, will not help you make your point or secure that vote of confidence.

I have heard local politicians use “drink the Kool-Aid” as a positive thing – it isn’t.

Unless you are playing a video game, don’t use “Take it to the next level.” Even if you are talking about video games, do not use it.

You will sound as if you are permanently thirteen.

Yes, I know “Paradigm shift” sounds all trendy and cosmic, but please use words and phrases that have actual meaning and content.

When was the last time you heard “Put your ducks in a row” or “Run it up the flagpole”?

I hope it was in a 1990’s movie and not in some real life Dilbert inspired corporate-meeting hellscape.

Or how about “Pick your brain”? This phrase should have been stopped the first time anyone heard it. Is it a threat? A zombie promise? An invitation to have your thoughts and ideas stolen?

Anyone ever hear the term “My door is always open” and believe it?

How about “Going forward”? Is there any other possibility?

Anyone use the phrase “In today’s world”? Well yes, I guess we should make decisions and policies as if we lived in “today’s world,” as opposed to what? Next Thursday’s world? Last month?

The term “actionable” must mean actions we take as a result of our discussion, or does it?

How about “Stepping up to the plate”? You have to love sports metaphors. They’ll never die.

Or is it a food metaphor?

You might want to reconsider a metaphor that has much relevance to an all-you-can-eat buffet as it might to a baseball field.

How about “Failure is not an option”? If there is anything we should be learning in 2020, even though it has always been true, failure is indeed an option. And it forever will be.

And probably my all-time (un)favorite nonsensical phrase “It is what it is.”

Even before it entered the lexicon of memorable presidential quotes, it was stale, insolent and meaningless all at once. If you want to convey apathy, incompetence and deeply embedded resignation, this is your ultimate go-to phrase.

If you want to convince your listeners that you are responsible, resilient and resourceful, use grown-up words that hold meaning and impact.

Editor’s note: Not only is “It is what it is” a clarion call to insolence and irresponsibility, but as a sentence with contractions it betrays its inner incoherence; just try to say it in its contracted form; “It’s what it’s.”

It’s stupid and empty, no matter who says it. If that is your intent, use it freely.

Some phrases, like “It is what it is” are immediately recognizable as empty and void of content, others, like “It’s a win-win situation” had meaning and power – a decade or so ago.

“Win-win” is a great idea, and should certainly be the premise behind any mutually satisfying arrangement. But when I hear it, my first impulse is NOT to believe it.

It’s about as convincing as someone saying “I’m not drunk!” When, after all, does anyone say that?

And the more they say it, the louder they say it, the more convinced you should be that you can’t believe it.

Just like “I’m not drunk,” if I hear “win-win” more than once in a conversation, count me out of the deal.

Some business journals have addressed the ubiquity of these mind-numbing, pointless time-fillers –

All these clichés are, ahem, creating “a perfect storm” (how many times have you heard that lately?) that is creating a situation I’m “trying to get my head around” so I think I’ll “circle back to it later” and maybe it will “move the needle” toward “best practices” and a higher level of “deliverables.”

And if you describe yourself as “a change agent,” you are about as convincing as the guy trying to convince his buddies (or the police office) that he’s “not drunk.”

Yes, you too could speak like a business guru, though it might be one from a far distant, even mythical, age, or even some satirical office television series.

If you use these terms, you might recognize “the elephant in the room,” profit from “the next big thing,” or even “go viral.”

“Going viral” by the way, is my nomination for the term that has aged the least well. The last thing any of us want in the age of COVID-19 is literally anything going viral.

And yes, like COVID-19, avoid these linguistic blobs of jargon like the proverbial plague.


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