Fresh metaphors, please

Words and phrases that may have meant something once, in Cannes

“Madame, all our words from loose using have lost their edge…”

Death in The Afternoon, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway, as usual, hit the thing on the head. When words get used too often, their usefulness erodes. Sometimes we call that jargon. Or cliché.

It isn’t just inelegant, then, to talk of “leveraging solutions” and “stakeholder buy-in” and “customer satisfaction” – it’s not good communication full stop.

In The Science of Storytelling I came across an explanation of why this happens. It’s all about brains…

Researchers recently tested [the] idea that cliched metaphors become ‘worn-out’ by overuse. They scanned people reading sentences that included action-based metaphors (‘they grasped the idea’), some of which were well-worn and others fresh. ‘The more familiar the expression, the less it activated the motor system,’ writes the neuroscientist Professor Benjamin Bergen. ‘In other words, over their careers, metaphorical expressions come to be less and less vivid, less vibrant, at least as measured by how much they drive metaphorical simulations.’

The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr

So jargon can be excluding, annoying and sometimes dangerous. Loose meanings, loosely used, cause misdirection and misunderstanding. We hide the meaning of things even from ourselves when we start talking like an insider (or what we imagine an insider should sound like).

If you’re going to use images in your language, make sure they vivid and clear and new. If you’re just doing an impression of the last corporate shmuck’s soliloquy you heard, then you’re aiming low and no one is really listening to what you’re saying. (And if you’re reading that nonsense off a PowerPoint slide, you’re virtually guaranteeing that no one knows what you were trying to say – if indeed you were actually trying to say anything of substance in the first place.)

Sure, a lot of this is cultural, habitual, hard to stop doing; but the least you can do is to start to notice when you do it – and make a note to have a word with yourself later.