10 business clichés that are actually valuable

Sometimes a phrase is used a lot because the imagery resonates. Here are some popular sayings you shouldn’t ditch. After all, why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

The Internet is filled with lists of clichés that make you sound stupid, but are all clichés bad?

In an interview with NPR, writer Hephzibah Anderson said, “The really good clichés are … the ones that are packed with color and wonderful images, even though we hear them so often, so frequently that we don’t pause to consider them. Things like the elephant in the room and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Her point is that certain clichés are bad not because we say them a lot, but because they don’t add meaning. Clichés that do convey meaning and boost interest, however, are good.

So before we eliminate all popular phrases from our vocabularies, we ought to ask: Which clichés are still worth using? To help answer this question, here is a look at 10 business clichés that some would argue are valuable.

Consider the following:

1. Reach out: An Economist piece points out that “reach out” has essentially replaced “contact” in business speak today. Yet before anyone goes calling it trite because of popularity, consider what the phrase implies—”an added effort,” The Economist says, or “a stretch beyond the normal.” So, then, when you say you’ll reach out to someone, you say you will make an effort to contact and communicate with that person. You are saying, metaphorically, you’ll reach toward them. Though the phrase may have grown to include different subtexts over time, the intention is a good one.

2. Think big: We all understand the difference between small ideas and big ones—it’s the lemonade stand on the corner versus the nationwide juice chain. So when you tell your team to “think big,” you tell them to push their ideas to new limits, to expand their perspectives, and to be bold about it.

3. Highly leveraged: In his Encyclopedia of Business Cliches at Squidoo, Seth Godin cites “highly leveraged” as an example of a business cliché that’s actually helpful. “Telling someone that a particular hedge fund is ‘highly leveraged,’ ” says Godin, “is a lot easier than saying, ‘They’ve borrowed a lot of money in order to speculate and multiply their positive returns using other people’s money.’ ”

4. Let’s throw this against the wall and see what sticks: Apply the imagery of darts to the world of business—or the old notion of how to tell when spaghetti is done cooking—and you get this cliché. The imagery is not only vivid, but also the message is clear: You’re going to brainstorm a ton of ideas, consider them all, and see if you can’t find one that will work in the process.

5. It’s a win/win: A win/win situation is one that’s good for everybody—both customer and client, both seller and buyer. When you discover a solution with these kinds of benefits, you have an easy-to-sell option that everyone will like.

6. The darkest hour is before the dawn: In business as in life, sometimes things get really, really bad before they get better—and that’s exactly to what this cliché speaks. By telling your people the darkest hour is before the dawn, you’re offering age-old encouragement. You’re saying, “Don’t give up. There is still hope!”

7. Don’t shoot the messenger: What middle manager hasn’t wanted to tell his or her team not to shoot the messenger? Harkening back to days where messengers would deliver bad news to camps or teams on the battlefield, this phrase instructs listeners not to punish the deliverer of a message rather than the person responsible for the message.

8. Finger in every pie: The imagery behind this phrase is not hard to imagine, with one individual sticking different fingers in a tableful of pies. When someone says a person has his or her “finger in every pie,” it means that person is involved in and influencing many different arenas. It can have either a good or a bad connotation (i.e., “Anna will know the answer; she has a finger in every pie,” versus “We’ll probably have to run this by Joe, since, you know him, he’s got a finger in every pie.”).

9. A fish out of water: Just like a fish would flap about out of water, a team member might be struggling in a new role or a new responsibility. Saying someone is a “fish out of water” is a much more descriptive way of saying someone doesn’t fit.

10. More haste, less speed: This is one of those clichés that makes you think. To make haste, you hurry; to use less speed, you slow down. The meaning is that hurrying and rushing can often make you less productive in the long run. You’re scurrying to finish something and doing it halfway.

What are some of your favorite and least favorite clichés?

Shanna Mallon is a writer for Straight North, a Chicago Web design firm providing specialized SEO, Web development, and other online marketing services such as website content writing services. Follow Straight North on Twitter and Facebook.


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