In the midst of our series on Jim Collins’s How the Mighty Fall, it occurs to me it might be valuable to pause and talk for a moment about language.
Partly this is prompted by a bit of self-consciousness on my part, that the true value of Collins’s five stages of decline lies not at all in their macro structure and trajectory, which is borderline obvious to those of us who immerse themselves in management literature, but in the details. Without attending to the details, I fear, it’s odds-on that one will miss Collins’ point entirely and wonder why I have bothered to run a series on it in the first place. (Hence the self-consciousness.)
So as I was reflecting on the subtleties of language and how elusive extracting meaning can be, luck presented me with You Can Talk About Innovation Without Resorting to Cliches, in the February 2016 Harvard Business Review. I commend it widely, but especially to those of you who may toil in the forests of words; I’m confident you will find it bracing.
For starters, how’s this for an opening paragraph:
A cliche is fresh for a day.
George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language (an always-relevant essay if there ever were one), nailed cliches as “dying metaphors,” which damns them at the same time it succinctly recognizes their insight when newborn. And improbably, as the title of the HBR piece implies, cliches seem especially widespread—virtually the coin of the realm—when people talk about innovation. “Thinking outside the box,” “taking it to the next level,” “raising the bar,” “the Uber of [you-name-it].” OK, I’ll stop torturing you now.
When you come across such phrases used in polite company (and when invoked they never come alone but tend to multiply and pile up on top of each other helter-skelter), you—or at least I—have to stand back and marvel that anyone would think they can substitute for thought.
Our good HBR author has a theory as to why this might be so:
Many innovation-minded people understand success purely as a numbers game. To them, the number of users matters, not uniqueness.
This isn’t the way it works with language. With language it’s about quality, [and] language success is about freshness, not scale.
A good motto for building linguistic freshness can be found in Ezra Pound’s definition of literature: “news that stays news.” You want to invest in words that will retain their value.
Keeping matters fresh is far easier to advise than to follow.
So I have a suggestion: The next time you hear a public figure apologize for having taken leave of their senses in some newly dumbfounding and awe-inspiring fashion, by stating that they “regret” the “inappropriate” behavior, or that they “apologize to anyone who might have taken offense,” take note of your visceral recoil at such pap.
May it stiffen your resolve to keep words new. The choice is yours.