Cut the Clichés, Give People a Portrait

When does your go-to leadership saying become a cliché? There’s no cut and dry answer to this, but it’s definitely before you notice people’s eyes glazing over. Leaders who live in the world of forward progress often miss the cues that their teams or constituents are tired of hearing Hallmark card worthy phrases. Simply signing off speeches and emails with “the best is yet to come” isn’t cutting it anymore. It’s time to cut the clichés and give people a portrait.

On August 28, 1963, some 250,000 people convened at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. It was on this day that Martin Luther King, Jr., through his “I Have a Dream” speech, confronted the injustices of the past and present with distinct imagery and remarkable clarity. MLK said in seventeen minutes what millions of hearts had cried out for centuries. He was attuned to the plight of real people and refused to tickle their ears, or politicians in positions of power standing by, with platitudes. Listen to MLK’s words. Read what MLK said. His speech is chock full of moving metaphors that respectfully highlight and hold the past accountable. It simultaneously paints an honest portrait of hope to inspire, guide, and challenge generation after generation to press beyond the status quo.

If you’re unmoved by MLK’s message, just stop reading. If “I Have a Dream” emblazons your soul, let these leadership tips equip you to cut the clichés and give people a portrait.

Inspire by Leveraging Reality

Clichés deceive more leaders than followers. If you haven’t figured it out, fact-checking is a thing. So, you’d better have your snapshot of what’s true in check when you open your mouth. Anyone in earshot can Google the integrity of your statements, statistics, and self-awareness. Perhaps this is why leaders turn to clichés. It’s easier to toss around a nicety than do the hard work of researching and speaking reality. However, what people you influence long for is honesty about today and inspiration toward tomorrow. Take the opportunity to talk about real stories, real people, and real solutions. What are you learning as a leader in real-time? Who needs praise or correction? Where have you seen what you’re looking for in action? Don’t cheapen the power of words by shooting “the best is yet to come” into the crowd.

Guide by Presenting Imagery

Can you imagine standing in the crowd during MLK’s speech? Imagine people’s response just before, during, and after he said: “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” MLK could have said, “The best is yet to come;” instead, he used timely metaphors anchored in financial realities and economic relationships that rang true for Americans. Reforming business or banking wasn’t his purpose, yet MLK spoke of realities that painted a true portrait of fiscal integrity. The imagery presented throughout his message is a playbook to guide the reconciliation of humanity. Instead of using surface clichés to get your point across, paint a portrait that doubles as a rudder to stay on a common course together.

Challenge by Depicting Restoration

“The best is yet to come” sounds good but it actually discounts past, present, and future challenges. It’s good to honor where you’ve been, how you got here, who you’ve become, and where you’re going. You don’t really know what the future holds, so it’s better, to be honest, and hopeful than naively or presumptuously heroic. Restoring something to what it was intended to be, or redirecting it toward an intended reality, is hard work. Anyone who has tackled their physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual fitness seriously recognizes the need for deeply meaningful motivation. No one thinks “the best is yet to come” when they’re exhausted halfway through running a marathon, renovating a building, or weighing another round of counseling over divorce papers. It’s why they carry the first dollar they earned or a tattered family photo in their wallet.

People need a custom portrait before stepping up to a challenge. They need to see what they’re really facing before they commit to throwing their heart and soul into the work again and again. As a leader, call out the best in your people by showing them a personalized picture of what you collectively believe is best and worthy of your best efforts. Consider this: the reason “I have a dream” hasn’t become cliché is because it still carries contextual weight and keeps challenging what must be changed. It’s your turn to speak specific words that enliven the dreams of the people you lead and the proverbial mountains you face together.

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