Familiar Phrases as Mental Cues

Familiar phrases such as “take the bull by the horns” can say a lot in a few words, helping pack a punch in your sound-bite explanation, answer or comeback.

Familiar phrases such as “take the bull by the horns” can say a lot in a few words, helping pack a punch in your sound-bite explanation, answer or comeback.

Garrison Keillor has a comedy bit in which he uses a string of familiar phrases matched with sound effects by his wingman, Fred Newman. The bit works because the phrases trigger familiar images in our minds.

Familiar phrases can be persuasive mental cues that convey complex information in a few words.

Phrases such as “the buck stops here,” “take the bull by the horns,” “don’t put all your eggs in one basket" and “throw caution to the wind” are freighted in meaning that extends beyond the definition of the words they contain. They tell a mini-story. They paint a clear picture. They quickly and deftly draw on what we already know in order to tell us something we don’t know.

Some phrases suffer from over-use and have become tired clichés. Other phrases derive from idioms, which have become like a foreign language in the ears of younger generations. But that doesn’t diminish the value of a freshly framed familiar phrase to explain an issue, answer a question or score a point.

•  The CEO of a large pharmaceutical company said, “Innovation needs to be the goal of U.S. health care reform – not its victim.”

•  The owner of an upscale grocery store, faced with allegations of selling contaminated products, snapped, “The only thing spoiled here is our customers.”

•  Maryon Pearson, the wife of a British prime minister, quipped, “Behind every successful man is a surprised woman."

Rick Steves, the famed travel writer, interviewed Miles Unger about his book tracing the life of Michelangelo. Unger peppered his replies with phrases of familiarity. Noting the famous artist never married, Unger said, “Michelangelo’s art was his wife and his works were his children.” He described Michelangelo’s struggle for regard as an artist as opposed to a craftsman for hire by saying, “He refused to paint Madonnas by the square foot.” Unger said Michelangelo’s masterpieces, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, were “art with an agenda” that brimmed with the humanism of the Renaissance.

Unger employed word plays that struck a familiar chord with listeners. Art as a wife and artworks as children is not a unique expression, but it is an effective one to underscore Michelangelo’s single-minded dedication to his artistry. He conjoined two familiar images with his reference to painting fine art by the square foot. His quip about art with an agenda was a crisp, economical way to say there was deeper purpose to what Michelangelo created.

We live in a time when we are constantly bombarded by information, which has had the perverse effect of shrinking our attention spans – or at least our patience. Sound bites have become necessary to pique interest, hold attention and convey meaning. Familiar phrases can be a sound bite savior by stretching the impact of just a handful of words.

Sound bites, like good melodies, keep echoing in your ear and are hard to get out of your mind. They are clever enough to repeat. Most importantly, they give listeners a verbal cue card of what you think is really significant. Think of them as verbal underlining.

The experienced speaker or speechwriter learns the tricks of using or twisting familiar phrases to “cut to the chase” of connecting with an audience. What you say may be new, but it will stick better if it is fastened to what your audience already knows.

If you need a familiar-phrase tutor, consult Will Rogers: “A fool and his money are soon elected.” “Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.” “An economist’s guess is liable to be as good as anyone else’s.”  

Heed George Bernard Shaw’s advice to avoid confusion over the “power of conversation” and the “power of speech.” Most conversations are forgettable. A great line can live on for a long time.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.