How we can avoid clichés and empty phrases in our communication
My first boss was the head of the internal economic and statistical office at the Danish Department of Employment and I was a green civil servant, recently graduated from the University of Copenhagen.
Our job was to perform macroeconomic analysis on the state of employment in Denmark and write memos and reports with our findings. We also wrote answers to questions from the members for Parliament and briefings and speeches for the Minister (Secretary) of Employment.
My boss made sure that nothing was inappropriately released from his office and meticulously scrutinized all my draft reports.
He taught me a rule that I have been striving to live by ever since and it goes like this:
“When the opposite of an adjective, that you use, makes no sense in the same context, then your adjective is empty and superfluous.”
Let me give you an example from a job advertisement I came across the other day:
As part of our executive succession plan we are now recruiting an experienced and competent CEO with a strong drive to lead the company.
We need a visionary and action-oriented CEO with international and commercial experience and focus on business development, implementation, communication and change management.
I have highlighted the adjectives.
Which are genuine adjectives and which are clichés and empty of meaning?
- Experienced: This is genuine, indicating that they will not consider anyone without prior experience as a CEO.
- Competent: This is a cliché. No one will be looking for an incompetent CEO.
- Strong: Cliché. Who is looking for a CEO with weak drive?
- Visionary: Cliché. Who is looking for a CEO with no vision?
- Action-oriented: Cliché. Who is looking for a lame CEO?
- International: That’s a genuine qualification as opposed to someone with domestic experience only.
- Commercial: It comes with the job as a CEO.
Had this text gone through the hands of my first boss it would have ended up like this:
As part of our executive succession plan we are now recruiting an internationally experienced CEO.
It is important to avoid clichés and empty phrases, because it makes our communication sound pompous and self-inflated and it introduces ambiguity. In the specific case above, the job advertisement uses prose that is in direct conflict with the type of person that they apparently are looking for.