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When do metaphors lose their power?

There is no doubt that metaphors can be powerful. A judicious choice of words can conjure vivid images, creating pictures in the minds of readers or listeners. Those pictures are often incredibly enlightening and impressively persuasive.

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But certain figures of speech eventually lose their explanatory power and only serve to

weaken the impact of messages.

When do metaphors lose their power?

When they have become clichés!

What are clichés?

Carefully chosen metaphors clarify messages, enhancing understanding. They paint pictures in the mind that leave readers or listeners feeling enlightened, driven to action or comforted.

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But when those words have been overused, they continue to express the intended meaning but fail to inspire. Hackneyed words no longer cause audiences to sit up and take notice. They don’t influence hearts and minds but instead disengage those they are intended to influence.

Overused metaphors that were once effective and highly original eventually seem bland or even irritating. Powerful language loses its edge and is transformed into the mundane.

Clichés are nothing more than conventional metaphors that have become victims of their own success.

This makes them important metaphors to avoid if you need your message to resonate.

How can you avoid using clichés?

The trouble with clichés is that they are in such common usage that we all utter them without a second thought. They insert themselves in our sentences uninvited. They are visitors to our speeches and written work that can be hard to banish.

So, how do you spot phrases that would be better left unspoken?

Dead metaphors

Expressions such as levelling up, knocking it out of the park, taking the bull by the horns and getting the ball rolling would have once boasted impressive impact. Now, they have lost their power. You will no longer visualise an angry bull being grabbed by its horns, or a baseball being struck so hard that it leaves the stadium. If you wish your words to resonate, you need to think carefully. But perhaps not outside of the box or with a 110% effort!

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When formulating your words, it is crucial to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do your words truly inspire imagery or are they just common alternatives to plain language that feel mundane?

  2. Is the expression you have chosen trendy?

  3. Have you conjured your words quickly?

  4. Could your words feature in a game of bullshit bingo (also known as buzzword bingo)?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you have probably fallen into the trap of using clichés.

Are there any cures for clichés?

Clichés could alienate your audience but it’s all too easy for them to creep into your content without you noticing. If you take the time to consider your words, you will spot the phrases that are weakening your argument.

So, when your words are suffering from a bout of clichéitis, how do you address such an unfortunate affliction?

Happily, there are several treatments for your linguistic ailment:

Everyday figurative language

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A form of replacement therapy worth considering is the use of plain, everyday language. Clichés often sound like jargon and that can be annoying. When you can’t summon a sufficiently original or jargon-free metaphor, don’t use one at all. Instead of asking your colleagues to grab the bull by the horns, simply request that they confront their issue with confidence. Sometimes simple, direct language works best.

Enhance your metaphors

Even a hackneyed cliché can regain at least some of its power when you treat it to a linguistic form of plastic surgery. Instead of suggesting that someone should knock it out of the park, what about asking them to “smash it with such venom that it exits the arena”? Adding detail to your expressions can inject new life into old sayings.

Stress the difference

A cliché is essentially a form of words that invites comparison. Doing the opposite can imbue your words with greater impact. Instead of explaining a situation or issue as being akin to another, explain exactly why a cliché will fall short of describing it.

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You might have been tempted to describe a lengthy and onerous project as a marathon or

an Olympian task. Why not turn that idea on its head? You could explain that the project was lengthy but unlike a competitor in an Olympic marathon, you couldn’t have known the distance you would need to travel, and you were entirely unprepared for the challenge.

Embrace the cliché

Sometimes you may be forced to conclude that a cliché is the only suitable metaphor you can use. So, why not embrace it but also indicate that you are aware it is a cliché? End your comment with “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true”.

Invent a new metaphor

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You could inject greater impact into your words by including phrases that nobody else has used. Everyone will be familiar with the notion of thinking outside of the box but will be tired of hearing it. Why not introduce the idea of allowing one’s grey cells to wander out of the meadow and into the mountains?

Too good to be true?

Metaphors are powerful expressions that shape the way we see and experience life. They are important aspects of language that imbue speech and written content with enhanced meaning. But metaphors can also prove to be so effective that they are eventually overused, and their power is lost. Clichés are metaphors that are not too good to be true. They are too true to be good.

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