The term cliché derives from typesetting. Long ago, French printers recognized that certain writers used the same phrase over and over again. So, to spare themselves the labor of setting the phrase each time in movable type, they cast it into a block. The clamp that held it was called a cliché.
Every season, it seems, a new cliché sneaks into the business lexicon as turn of phrase that aptly describes a familiar dynamic or situation. At first, it actually improves communication because it gets a point across succinctly. But then it takes on a life of its own. It spreads virally, accelerated by linguistic disease vectors like PowerPoint presentations, cable news and advertising. Eventually it creeps onto the tongues of everyone from school kids to CEOs.
Mercifully, most of these epidemics eventually reach a peak of overuse, then gradually fade away. Think: “paradigm shift,” “outside-the-box,” or “turnkey solution.” But there are always more business clichés in the offing. Lately, I’ve noticed the phrase “block and tackle” cropping up with increasing frequency. This one is particularly vexing, because it has multiple meanings and it kinda doesn’t really make sense.
When somebody says, “we’re looking for someone who can block and tackle for us,” the image that first springs to mind (in this country anyway) is one of football linemen. But when you think about it, blocking and tackling are actually opposing roles—one offensive, one defensive. They’re not usually performed by the same side, at least not at the same time, so the metaphor is not entirely clear. Maybe the intent is to describe menial grunt work, less glamorous than that of so-called “skill positions” like quarterback and receiver. That would make sense (though it may raise objections from franchise left tackles or speed-rushing defensive ends), but I suspect there are other forces at work here.
A block and tackle is also a system of ropes and pulleys used to gain mechanical advantage, common to boats and sailing ships. So, the speaker might be looking for a resource that would provide analogous service—a force multiplier—which would be quite different from simple grunt work … though both may or may not involve heavy lifting. See what I mean? This may a case of usage jumping the tracks. A speaker uses the term in the mechanical sense, the listener hears a football analogy, and communication breaks down. A form of verbal shorthand intended to facilitate communication actually introduces confusion, leaving two parties with very different interpretations of a conversation.
Interestingly, block and tackle (in the nautical context, anyway) is akin to the word “leverage,” which has a bronze statue at the business cliché hall of fame. “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the earth.” OK, Archimedes, but how would you leverage the earth? What makes the word leverage insidious is that it gets used in so many ways. For Wall Street, it’s debt. For law firms, it’s staffing ratios. Vladimir Putin recently used it in a controversial New York Times opinion piece as a more palatable euphemism for “power.” In many other cases it simply means “use.” The term is so threadbare it has become effectively meaningless. (I’ll concede that contesting the use of leverage as a verb is a lost cause, but I do submit that a far greater authority than I long ago observed that verbing wierds language.)
My point is, effective communication—and especially business communication—is essentially about clarity, brevity and thoughtfulness. Clichés gain traction in the first place because they are concise and easy to use, but they lose value with overuse. We start to use them reflexively, fumbling for them when at a loss for words. But what at first seemed clever soon becomes trite.
So, how do we avoid clichés? My best answer is time. Clichés are usually invoked when people are going too fast, and I’m as much of an offender as anyone. When writing, it’s a question of pausing to consider what you really mean. It’s fast and easy to invoke an overused expression, but it takes time to pause and consider the finer implications of a phrase. Most people don’t make the extra effort, but those who do stand out.
Speech, of course, is a little bit trickier. When I’m in a public speaking situation—whether at an event or in a one-on-one business meeting—I often feel a sense of urgency. The reflective part of my brain shuts down and I rush to fill any voids with words. (I may be wrong, but I don’t think I’m alone in this trait.) Clichés are the easiest way to fill the gap, and I use them frequently, but when I do, I can feel I’m losing my listener bit by bit. I think the best remedy here, too, is to just slow down.
Roger Ebert’s stellar autobiography “Life Itself” contains critical guidance on this point from no less than John Wayne. Early in his career, Wayne realized that if he only had a few lines in a picture, the best way to maximize their value (i.e. get more screen time) was to say them as slowly as possible. It makes a lot of sense, and the result is not just effective, it’s iconic. Think about it: If … you … want … people … to … listen … to … you …, pilgrim, … say … the … words … slower.
Clear and concise does not necessarily mean fast. It just means non-reflexive. Those French printers who cast blocks of print did so because they didn’t want to think about it any further. Using tired phrases have the same effect on readers and listeners, and they don’t do anybody any good.