You just know them when you hear them.
There’s a sudden break in the flow of a speech, a tightening of the atmosphere as if air has been sucked out of the room. What are these ructions in the speech-time continuum? The insidious reliance on overused words or phrases.
The urge to reach for a linguistic crutch can be overwhelming, particularly when—as in Toastmasters meetings—discussing common themes: overcoming adversity, a willingness to try the new, challenging yourself, and so on. But if we are to excel as communicators, it behooves us to be fresh through authenticity, seek originality and maintain a deadly aversion to clichés.
So, what are these words and phrases? A few of the worst offenders include the following.
“Think outside the box”
The irony of this phrase, of course, is that by using it, people are doing anything but thinking outside the box. Looking at things in an unorthodox way is often a great asset, so why use a hackneyed phrase to convey that idea? Instead of urging action with a cliché, why not show your audience exactly what it means to be an original thinker and find a new phrase?
The problem with this, as with all clichés, is that if it applies to everything, then it applies to nothing. Something that’s genuinely inspirational should move you to jump out of your seat, tingle with possibilities, and perhaps even change your own life. Avoid this woodworm-riddled old crutch and tell us how something really made you feel.
A journey usually denotes an actual physical move from A to B, but the word has been seized on to imbue any of life’s processes with a profound meaning that often isn’t fitting. If you’ve been through a process and your life has changed, say so. If you’ve learned new skills and developed personally, say that too. But let’s not, every time we do anything new or make a mildly important life decision, say we’ve been on a “journey.”
There are many more such phrases, but if we are to become and produce great communicators and leaders, we have to recognize and address words whose excessive use has made them grating and near meaningless. Let’s do better!
Niels Footman, CC is the president of Early Bird Speakers in London, England.