Are Small Business Cliches Damaging Your Reputation?

A good friend of mine has a T-shirt that says, “I avoid clichés like the plague.” A bit of a word nerd myself, I confess to loving that shirt.

A cliché can be any word or phrase that gets overused. They’re everywhere, even in small business circles, and they’re hard to avoid — that is, unless you learn to recognize them.

The Problem with Small Business Clichés

There are plenty of reasons to cut small business clichés from your vocabulary. For starters, clichés can lead to misconceptions and generalizations about your industry or business that just aren’t true.

For example, how about this article by Steve Strauss that appeared on some years back? He took exception to the cliché that “the customer is always right” (among others), saying:

“Are you kidding me? That jerk haranguing the sweet waitress most certainly is not right. By the same token, the customer does not come first. Employees, spouses, children, shareholders and investors come first.”

Clichés also frequently get tuned out by consumers and clients. The words themselves lose their meaning because they are used so often. At best they’re like elevator music, playing that melody you just can’t place. At worst they’re actually offensive, grating on your nerves like the neighbor’s dog barking all night.

Using clichés can potentially characterize your business as old, drab and unappealing in a world where people are constantly looking for fresh ideas. Not only that, but people need something to distract them from a barrage of boring messages all vying for their time, money and loyalty.

Some Common Business Clichés

Not sure exactly what I’m talking about when I say “small business clichés?” Here are a few I’m sure you’ve heard and possibly even use:

  • Value-Added
  • Intuitive
  • Level the Playing Field
  • Mission Critical
  • Bottom Line
  • Managing Expectations
  • On the Same Page
  • Guru
  • Think Outside the Box
  • Best Practices
  • Solutions
  • Recession-proof
  • Drop the Ball
  • Seamlessly Integrating
  • Client-centered
  • Industry Standard

Tips for Avoiding Clichés

Clichés are pervasive, and none of us are completely immune to including them in our writing and conversations. Not all of them are misleading either. Most of the time, the real harm with clichés is not that they get your small business negative attention, but that they fail to get your small business any attention at all.

Here are some tips for avoiding clichés that won’t do anything positive for your business:

  • Be aware. Get familiar with clichés, and keep a list on your laptop or in a notebook if you need to. When you edit particularly long documents, use the “Find” command to hunt for the clichés you use most.
  • Spy on your competition. Briefly visit the websites of a few of your closest competitors. If several of them are using the same terminology, take it as a sign that it’s time to freshen up your own copy.
  • Do an informal communications audit. Look for phrases that appear over and over again in your small business text. Check emails, website copy, and newsletters and highlight all the clichés and overused phrases. Edit those works for your next site update or print job.

What small business clichés make you cringe whenever you hear them?

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Emily Suess
Emily Suess is a full-time technical marketing writer in the software industry and a part-time freelance copywriter. To learn more about marketing your small business online, check out her copywriting blog, Say It With Me.


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    • I actually don’t hear that a lot, but so many of them are industry- and location-specific. I’m putting bandwidth on my editing shortlist in case I ever come across it while working with a client. Thanks, Alyssa!

  1. FANTASTIC List & Fun To Consider

    A few more to be “over” heard:
    hitting the fast ball
    reaching critical mass
    team leader

    Unfortunately, most of us just lost 10% of our vocabulary :(

  2. Hi Emily,

    I think the only one I’m using right now is ‘value-added’, but I truly believe in adding value to everything I do, both for myself and those I create content for.

    Great list and tips, though, to stay away from Cliche’s!

  3. Thanks for commenting, Morgan. Even as a writer who is supposed to know better, I still use cliches a lot and have to work hard to edit them out! Plus some are just more fitting than others.

    I don’t think it’s even possible to avoid them entirely, but we can always strive to be more creative with the way we present our business to others.

  4. When someone tells me to ‘think outside the box’ I channel George Carlin and demand that we get back into the box and look for something we missed, etc. etc.

    I like the idea of a list — know what the rules are before breaking them. Sometimes a cliche has validity; abuse is the ‘elephant in the room’.

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