Military metaphors: images of destruction


“This killer app is the latest weapon in our arsenal.”
“We aim to make a bridgehead in the SME market then launch an attack to capture the rest of the market and destroy the competition within 12 months.”
“Our target is to eradicate non-value added processes – to make our department lean and mean.”

Use of military words like this may be intended to energise and inspire. For some people, it has the opposite effect. The use of words like “weapon” and  “target”, especially in the same sentence, can turn a wholly positive idea into one which is repellent.

The words we use matter. Use of military words is associated with fear and threat.  The metaphors are destructive, conjuring up images of death and disaster. Often such words are used unthinkingly, and are part of the vocabulary of the organisation. Gung-ho macho culture was widespread in the 1980s, but is inappropriate now. Enthusiasm, determination and the will to win can be expressed with words which are creative.

“This irresistible app is the latest addition to our tool-kit.”
“We aim to become firmly established in the SME market and from there we will expand to win customers from the competition to attain market dominance in 12 months.”
“Our target is to remove wasteful processes: our department will be lively, energetic and efficient.”

See how the different words change the tone?

We fall into the use of clichés, such as “lean and mean”, without realising what implication those words have. The word “mean” is used to describe people who are ungenerous, selfish. I don’t think we really want our department to be ‘mean’.

All this matters even more if some of the audience are struggling with English as a second language. As we seek to welcome colleagues from many different backgrounds into our teams, we all do well to increase our awareness of the words we are using. Removing the military words is a good way to start.

I welcome your comments.

(And while we’re on this, I am waging a small personal campaign to replace the idiom “kill two birds with one stone”. As someone who appreciates living beings in general, and birds in particular, I am unsettled by the idea of killing birds with stones, whether by one stone or two. I am going to propose: “crack two boiled eggs with one spoon” – but I’m not satisfied with that, and may be you have a better idea? )

Categories: Conversations which work

2 replies

  1. Well said! I love your post Jane and totally agree. There is far too much of this aggressive, macho language around at present, particularly in the content marketing world I happen to inhabit. My personal pet hate is ‘lead capture’ – I don’t want to be ‘targeted’ to start with but I detest the thought of being ‘captured’ in the process. In fact content marketing is sometimes disguised as ‘weaponised storytelling’ now I think of it – yikes! Disrespectful to the customer and best left in the 80s as you say.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sonja! The person who said “weaponised storytelling” might not even realise what they said, and they might not consider that someone would be repelled by it. It’s easy to find oneself using this language. Glad you liked the blog post.

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