in ,

Dial-a-Cliché

  • “We have a busy week ahead”, said the middle manager opening another weekly team meeting. He continued: “A week full of exciting challenges and opportunities”. We heard his words as neither remarkable nor mundane, until some weeks later when we realised all managers at the firm uttered the same words at every team meeting. Over time, repetition undermined their words’ motivational impetus and blunted their import. Managerial speak had quickly curdled to cliché.

    For the lazy or pressed for time, clichés can serve as a crutch. Why dig for something new when an old standby sits within easier reach? Phoning it in is almost always easier than finding new ways to convey the same message but it threatens the longevity of some connections. Some people are more sensitive to clichés than others. I’m positively allergic.

    No matter their seeds of truth, clichés pull us out of the moment. For me, they nudge the handbrake on an otherwise interesting journey through the subject at hand. Further, a cliché’s appearance can lead me to more closely inspect what’s being obfuscated: a paucity of message or meaning.

    Just ask Brian Hunter of Audio-head.com. His excellent piece on audio show music anthems clichés struck all the right notes for all the wrong reasons. A well-worn catalogue of music choices might serve the few at showtime but overexposing one’s audience to favourites year after year risks dissolving long-term engagement.

    During my tenure as a DJ booker for my own monthly British music club night in Sydney, I’d keep guest DJs abreast of a frequently updated blacklist: songs played so often that any intrinsic magic they once possessed had been ground to dust by overexposure. The blacklist’s intent was to prevent familiarity from drawing audience contempt. Pulp’s “Disco 2000” and Blur’s “Song 2” held pole position for a very long time. (And no, I wasn’t exempt from my own restrictions).

    Swap the DJs for staff writers and the songs for audio review phrasing and my desire to keep Darko.Audio low on cliché remains as sharp as ever, despite my own occasional lapse into well-trodden phrases like ‘rhythmic alacrity’ or ‘deep detail retrieval’. I see my job as a describer of sound. Keeping one eye on finding new ways to say the same thing or, going deeper, finding new audible qualities to talk about is the most direct route to a unique style.

    If you think compiling a blacklist sounds horribly Orwellian, you’d be right. Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language sought to improve its use with (among other things) six rules. The first rule read: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print”.

    I think of Orwell’s first rule when I say that a word or phrase’s overuse – like certain Blur or Pulp songs blasted onto dancefloors – erodes their meaning or import. Each play contributes to the slow birth of a new cliché, talking loud but saying increasingly less. For our middle manager, when every week is purportedly set to be a busy one, it matters not whether it is or it isn’t.

    A reader intending to try his hand at audio reviewing recently sought my advice on tips for a newcomer. I sent him my review phrase blacklist by return. “Don’t write like how you think a reviewer should write. Throw away the template and find your own voice. I’d avoid anything on the attached list (but your call)”, I wrote. Many technical terms are unavoidable. Clichés are not.

    In shifting the Darko.Audio contributor stylesheet from private to public post, I’m taking a leaf from Brian Hunter’s book by turning it inside out: I’m sharing my blacklist with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek as a game of Buzzword Bingo:

    Two fat ladies not required.

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

    Follow John on YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter

    A short film about Ben Salter

    Roon comes to the big screen