Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Run It Up the Flagpole: the dreaded business cliché

Bob Sutton's recent post introducing Polly Labarre's marvelous term, jargon monoxide, got right to the point that hollow, meaningless, interchangeable language should be avoided. Over on Opinionated Marketers, I've posted a challenge to marketers - including myself - to make a real commitment to get off of the jargon monoxide track.  Bob's post also triggered flashbacks to some of the more memorable cliché practitioners I've worked with.

Now, clichés - used sparingly and wisely - can be fun and entertaining. It's their incessant, repetitive, and predictable use that can make even the calmest person tear their hair out.

One fellow to whom I reported for a mercifully short time could not open his mouth without spouting some cliché or another -generally stringing them together in tandem. Paul couldn't ask someone for their opinion. No, he had to run it up the flagpole. He couldn't just refine or massage his sales forecasts. He had to apply a little Kentucky windage. He couldn't seize an opportunity. Not when he could take a tiger by the tail. Worse yet, Paul's clichés were generally accompanied by pantomime. (He must have been afraid we'd miss the point.) So when he ran it up the flagpole, he pulled on his metaphorical ropes and saluted when the flag reached the top. To demonstrate Kentucky windage, he mimed siting his trusty Winchester rifle, cocking one eye and slightly adjusting his aim.

During his staff meetings, everyone's eyes would glaze over as Paul dredged up yet another expression from his all-occasion Kentucky windbag of clichés, offering them to us as if they were the wittiest of bons mots.

Fortunately, we were saved from the tedium of listening to Paul and witnessing his Marcel Marceau moments by our wise and wonderful president. Dave applied a little Kentucky windage of his own and handed Paul his head, showed him the door, and put us out of our misery. Paul, no doubt, found a new herd of swine to cast his pearls of great wisdom before.

In another place where I worked, the president was completely enamored with sports. It may have been compensation - he was short and did not appear to be particularly athletic. But he did love his sports clichés. At every, but every, company meeting Cal came to play, exhorting us to block and tackle, and reminding us to play to win. 

Joe, the CEO of another company, could not get through a meeting with marketing without slamming his palm down on the table and declaring, "we need rolling thunder." He would look around the table. "I want rolling thunder." Everyone would cast their eyes down, trying to avoid eye-contact. "What are we doing for rolling thunder?" Talk about collective cat got your tongue! But we all knew from experience that whatever programs and product announcements we were planning were insufficiently rolling and thunderous to put a smile on Joe's face.

And unfortunately, the only rolling thunder that place was able to deliver was the quarterly rolling of heads, and the thunder of pink-slipped employees being escorted out the door.

1 comment:

Cahill said...

Even worse when they use cliches that are wrong for the particular situation, or they offer up a little cliche soup.

I work with loads of Brits. Footie analogies don't work over here guys, anymore that my using baseball terms would work over there.

How about the incomprehesible tag line? After presenting numberous viable candidates a few years ago, the Senior Vice Idiot of Marketing came back with an incomprehensible serving of buzzword soup that did nothing except make us the butt of industry jokes...