Your Copy Sucks: Avoiding Cliches

Object as ConceptCliches (or, if you’re French and care about accent marks, clichés) are Not Good. They are so not good that I’m devoting a large part of my incredibly limited mortal existence to tell you why they are Not Good. Eighty, ninety years on this planet if I’m lucky, and I’m choosing to spend it on this. So, yeah. You’re welcome.

Okay, cliches! Get ready for an interesting fact: the word “cliche” originally meant a chunk of typeset text of moveable type Ye Olde printer could use over and over again often. This is also where we get the word “stereotype,” literally type that’s used many times for different purposes. Now it means a phrase or an idea that is used to the point of overuse; that is, it has lost its meaning.

This is bad business because:
1. It bores your customers.
2. It doesn’t help inform your customers.
3. It doesn’t set you apart from your competitors.

The tricky bit about cliches is that they’re a lot like figures of speech , which are so ingrained in our language, we don’t even know we’re using them most of the time. I defy you to leaf through a newspaper or flip through some commercials and not find dozens and dozens of cliches. So everyone is doing it! That doesn’t make it right. If the New York Times jumped off a bridge, would you do it too? (See what I did there? A cliche AND a personifi-whatever.)

Unfortunately, the antidote for cliches is originality, and, by definition, there’s no textbook on how to be original. I’m not saying every line you write needs to be Shakespeare, but it does need to be something more than a platitude or a recycled bit. I suppose the best advice would be to read expansively, not for the purposes of ripping off others, but to get your brain used to thinking in different ways.

And I don’t mean this in just brass-tacks writing; I mean ideas themselves. Cliches and stereotypes are easy shortcuts to human understanding, but you can get in a lot of trouble PR-wise if you’re lazy and fall into their traps. Dumb blondes, stupid jocks, effeminate homosexuals, battle axe businesswomen, hookers with hearts of gold, slow Southerners: these are cliches that you’re better off avoiding, not just for moral reasons but because they’re boring; they don’t help inform your customers; and using them doesn’t set you apart. Unless you like being profiled for making a large segment of consumers angry.

But even then, even the little scrap of press you eke out for “going there” and “telling it like it is” doesn’t get you much mileage because the offensive promotional stunt is itself a cliche. And another, more offensive stunt will be right behind you, rest assured.

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