Should you ever use clichés in your presentations? What do you gain by using them, or by not using them, and how can you successfully integrate them into your stories?

To cliché, or not to cliché: that is the question

Everyone hates a cliché, or so they say, particularly in presentations. The light bulb (bright idea), handshake (partnership), and puzzle piece (linkage) are probably the most commonly used, and boy are they used in all sorts of presentations, all over the world. Audiences are bored of them, and you run the risk of people thinking that they know what you’re going to say, switching off completely, or worse still, confusing your presentation and message with someone else’s.

And yet, cliché’s can be a really useful way to communicate a message quickly and effectively. Everyone recognises them, and knows what they represent. If you use a visual cliché (an image of one for example), then it means that as a presenter, you don’t need to tell your audience what your visual signifies as they can recognise it immediately, and so you’re giving them more time to think about your message, which is clearly the whole point of speaking with them in the first place.

So, which route do you take? ‘No one ever got fired for buying IBM’, or ‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’. It’s a tough choice. I’m not sure that it is.

How do you use clichés?

Most clichés are boring in presentations because of the way that they are used. Often you’ll have a big picture of the cliché next to some bullet points or text that relates to the cliché. It isn’t a very stimulating way to present, and often causes confusion, as the cliché is a general, catch-all point, and not something that helps your audience to focus on a specific part of your overall story. In these instances, you’re trying to work the cliché too hard and it falls over.

On the other hand, if used as part of a sequence, rather than being the main focus, a cliché can help your audience understand the individual elements of your story more easily, so that it’s in turn easier to understand your full message. This ties in with having a fully animated story and a good flow in your presentation, but it does mean that clichés can be a useful part of your presentation and something that shouldn’t be discarded out of hand.

Using clichés effectively

To give you an example, what you’ll see in the video below is a couple of typical clichés and how they are normally seen in presentations, often being the only visual present with some text or bullet points on a related topic (which really doesn’t work), compared with integrating the cliché as part of a wider visual story (which does work). The idea is to help you strike the right balance so that clichés work without inducing boredom or risks.

I hope that this shows that clichés can work, and that you shouldn’t be afraid to use them under the right circumstances. Clichés should seamlessly blend into your story, rather than being the focus of the visuals that you are using. They can be very effective as well as saving a lot of time trying to come up with a more original idea (as Stephen Fry said, check out your local library to find loads of them). However, also use them sparingly, so that your audience don’t start to notice the vast herds of clichés roaming through your presentations, and try to come up with something that is more specific to your message than a just general catch-all cliché.

If you’re using imagery in your presentation and are worried about boring photography clichés, check out our post on avoiding stock imagery clichés.

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Richard Goring


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Apr 2024

Whenever we see a presentation filled with bullet points - either as audience members or presenters - our hearts sink. We just know it's going to be a one-way ticket to boredom central. Deep down we all know that bullet points simply don't belong in a presentation, but why do they always manage to worm their way back in? Well, let's figure out why, and how we can stop them!

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