Why you should never, ever use the phrase “think outside the box”

Early in their careers, good writers learn to avoid clichés. You’ll find that advice in most books about writing. And any half-decent copywriter, journalist or author will agree.

Copywriters have a special interest in avoiding clichés. Original language strengthens any form of writing. But when you’re writing to sell, originality is also a powerful branding tool.

Identify the enemy

The Oxford Dictionary defines a cliché as

a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Most people betray their lack of original thought every day. In the corporate world, you hear words like actionable, paradigm-shifting and 360-degree thinking. Startup founders describe their companies as innovative, agile and disruptive.

Pay attention to these words. To remove clichés from your vocabulary, you must first learn to recognise them, both in text and speech.

But what’s the problem, you might ask. Everyone uses these expressions. Why shouldn’t I?

Well, you’ve answered your own question. The fact that everyone uses clichés is the reason that you shouldn’t. As a copywriter, your job is to set your business (or your client’s business) apart from its competitors.

Let’s say there are five companies competing in the same industry. Each of those companies describes itself using the same meaningless language. How is the customer meant to tell them apart?

You can craft a unique and recognisable brand by refusing to imitate the writing style of others. As we like to say at Recreate, if you want to stand out from the herd, stop speaking the herd’s language.

Writing and thinking

Originality is a good reason to cut the clichés from your word-stock. But there’s a deeper reason, too. Your choice of words reveals a lot about the inner workings of your mind.

When you rely on clichés to get your message across, you create the impression that you’re a lazy thinker. And who wants to buy stuff from a company run by lazy thinkers?

Consider the expression think outside the box. You’ve heard it thousands of times. We all have. It’s one of those old-school clichés that refuses to die. It’s also one of the most self-contradictory expressions in the English language.

The phrase implies that boring thinking happens inside the box, while creativity and originality happen outside. The problem is, when you say think outside the box, you’ve already failed to take your own advice. You haven’t demonstrated a shred of creativity or original thought. If the most inspired phrase you can summon is think outside the box, you are definitely not thinking outside the box. And your audience knows it.

Does your company struggle to write original, cliché-free copy? The good folks at Recreate can help you with that.