Defend Truth

Opinionista

We need to junk jargon, kill clichés and speak in words simple enough for clever people

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Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

All too often, clichés dull and diminish rather than being used for a broader, higher purpose. Instead, redundant and repetitive, they have become opiates, stymying intellectual growth and innovation.

It is what it is. It’s in God’s hands. The elephant in the room. A woman’s place is in the kitchen. Yolo (for non-millennials, that’s “you only live once”), a contemporaneous sibling of fomo, the fear of missing out.  

Millennial or not, if you are a South African, the chances are you’ve either heard or you actually use one of these phrases. All of them are clichés; phrases, ideas, tropes. Once upon a time, they described a certain truth, today they have been overused to such an extent that you might cringe when you hear them.

Some of these clichés are ghastly windows into darker times, like the sexist “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”. Cynics might think President Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn has become a cliché too — especially since not much seems to have been delivered after so much promise when it was first uttered in those heady first days of his presidency.

Other phrases and words, particularly during the pandemic, have been overused to the point of inducing hernias to anyone within earshot when they’re uttered, words like; pivot, transition and disrupt.

The danger of clichés though is not just that they’re trite, but that they short circuit discussion and dull thought. But they can be useful too. Clichés can be fantastic communication aids, filled with colour, imagery and values. Used properly they can become invaluable tools to encourage a broader movement or capture the zeitgeist. They can be coding for a culture or just create a sense of camaraderie in a group.

We still need to talk about the elephant in the room, irrespective of if it’s sexism, racism or patriarchy — or all three. Faced with a “tsunami of new technology”, we dare not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as we race to “adapt and adopt”. When plans don’t work, where there’s no “playbook” as happened during lockdown, it is still “time to go back to the drawing board”.

But all too often clichés dull and diminish rather than being used for a broader, higher purpose. Instead, redundant and repetitive, they have become opiates, stymying intellectual growth and innovation.

Sol Stein, in the excellent Stein on Writing says: “A cliché is a hackneyed phrase — stale, trite, banal, commonplace, corny, dull, musty, redundant, repetitious, tedious, threadbare, timeworn, tired, tiresome, worn-out, boring. If you prefer to focus on just one definition, it should be ‘tired from overuse.’ Clichés weaken your message, having little or no effect on the reader.” 

The overwhelming failing of bad clichés is that because of their easy availability and inherent coding, they encourage us to be intellectually lazy. And what’s more, leaders beware, they are even more insidious in the spoken word, fluffing the air with emptily alluring “speech” rather than igniting it with stirring and original “voice”.

As business leaders, when we come across clichés, we should take a leaf out of someone like Elon Musk’s book and see them as a warning sign of that discursive dishonesty and attack them. We shouldn’t ignore them, but instead, we should dive into them, because at the root of every cliché or trope there’s a truth, a story that once existed. We need to apply first-principle thinking, stripping away the detritus of overuse and age to rediscover those truths and find out if they are still applicable. If they are, we need to reframe them in a way that gets people to engage once again. If you find the heart of a cliché is still apt, practice restating it in new words.

We need to junk jargon, kill clichés and speak in words simple enough for clever people.

We are living in a time of new challenges, yes one of great disruption too. Language and our ability to use it to create stories that we share and embed with meaning, as Noah Yuval Harari reminds us, is what sets us apart from all other sentient life forms. The stories we tell create shared purpose because we invest and withdraw meaning in them. Good stories work because they leave blank spaces, open for our minds to engage and fill. As we do the stories become richer and more relevant to us. It’s one of the reasons why good writers avoid clichés, like the plague (pun intended), because clichés close up that space entirely.

It’s never been more important than it is now for us to tell new stories. We need to find a new meaning, because many of the old stories that we have relied on for decades, such as “the purpose of business is to make profit”, have led us to the crises we face today. Many of the old truths no longer apply as we rapidly decolonise education, repurpose business, and re-examine the histories and assumptions we once held to be eternal facts.

Profit, the bottom-line return to shareholders as the sole social responsibility and purpose of business espoused by Milton Friedman, is a cliché of the worst sort: rampant capitalism has led to much of the inequality we have today.

But when we re-examine the purpose of business to see it as returning prosperity to all the stakeholders and society, from the community to the staff and the shareholders, we see that none of this is achievable without the profitability of the business in question. To be profitable is an accountability and necessity for sustainability — if you don’t make profit someone else has to clear up your mess. Profit is essential as a means to a greater end, but as an end in itself it becomes the driver of incredible heartache.

We need to re-examine the other clichés in our lives and our businesses. Those that remain true, need to be reframed, but those which have become redundant, need to be thrown out. It starts at the very beginning, in school, as the late great Sir Ken Robinson famously said: “our education system has mined our minds, in the way we strip-mine the Earth for a particular commodity. And it won’t serve us in the future.” It hasn’t and it won’t.

Dead words, dead thoughts. The last thing we want is dead minds. We don’t need a world of zombies, but an energised society of people now more than ever. We need people, especially here in Africa, who can liberate themselves from the colonial stereotyping around intelligence and predestination and unlock their true potential. We all have to be determined to see beyond the flawed knowledge systems that have failed us and instead go back to first-principle critical thinking and start creating real solutions for real life in real time.

And the first step is by rejecting thought-terminating clichés. Today. DM

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  • Gordon Laing says:

    Just wondering whether the term “Ecosystem” can now be considered a cliche given its adoption by the business community to describe non living systems? Is its value as a critical word in the ongoing recognition of the importance of humanity being dependent on nature for our survival and thriving being diminished as it becomes a commonplace term business and commercial dialogue and writing?

  • Antonie Meyer says:

    I agree. Also, while you’re at it, please inform the incumbent and upcoming “politburo” that the overuse of “big words” and long, overcomplicated sentences do nothing for their perceived intellect. On the contrary, it demonstrates a need to overcompensate and screams “deceptive”. Stop beating around the blazing bush of truth, speak it, accept it and act accordingly. BR

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