What to do instead of using over-used and meaningless catchphrases


Some words and phrases are used so often that they lose meaning.
We don’t mean the psychological condition of semantic satiation, where you hear a word so much it temporarily turns into a meaningless series of sounds. Nor do we mean phrases that are commonly used incorrectly, like saying “literally” when you mean “figuratively,” or “I could care less” when you mean “I could not care less.” Neither do we mean jargon that might be annoyingly overused (“let’s circle back”) but at least still communicates a meaningful concept.
Rather, we mean phrases and words that have been used in so many different ways that it becomes difficult to understand what the speaker or writer really means.
Thought leadership. Engagement. Brand. ROI. Full-service. End-to-end. Value-added. Agile. Innovation. And so many more…
Such phrases may have had a specific meaning at one time, or in a specific situation, but people use them today in so many ways that their definitions have become fuzzy.
Take ROI – return on investment – as an example. What started as a clear-cut financial calculation has turned into a term that can be used qualitatively and flexibly…and thus have its meaning muddied. A co-worker might tell you that a given service has “awesome ROI,” but what does that mean?
Or engagement. This is a term that can many different meanings, and it would be entirely possible to have a conversation about customer or employee engagement where both people speak past each other because neither defines engagement in quite the same way. In fact, people may discuss the concept without having a clear definition in mind at all; it’s just an abstraction that they don’t know how to express otherwise.
Ultimately, such business jargon and catchphrases dilute the impact of your communications. They can increase the risk of miscommunication or, worse, make you or whatever you’re describing sound generic. If you’re trying to sell your service or product in this way (“innovative full-service end-to-end solutions!”), and you inadvertently make it sound like everyone else’s, such phrases might even result in lost sales.
Instead, avoid jargon and clichés using these tactics:
  1. Write it like you’re explaining it to a layperson. This works well with industry- or business-specific jargon.
  2. Write plainly. Use simple, down-to-earth language instead of more colorful or fancy wording.
  3. Be specific. Rather than using shorthand or code, detail what you mean.
  4. Use examples. Verbally illustrate what you mean.
  5. Define. Sometimes it’s appropriate to use a catchphrase; just define exactly how you’re using it.
  6. Focus on outcomes. Describe what the concept being discussed achieves.
  7. Use a synonym. With a thesaurus at hand, you might be able to find a clearer word or phrase.
  8. Omit. Catchphrases, like clichés, are often not even necessary to make your point.
These tactics can help clarify and sharpen your communications. To learn more phrases to avoid in writing and discover other strategies about communicating clearly, contact us.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.