In Praise of the Obvious

How many times do you sit down and read a book, or some piece of research only to find yourself saying “Oh, well that’s obvious” as you come upon some information that makes complete sense to you, though you’d never actually made the connection yourself. It happens all the time, no matter how much we think we know, sometimes the obvious needs to be stated in order for us to make the connection.

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We all have a certain amount of base knowledge, the information that we use to get around in our daily lives. This information is composed of things that the majority of people would consider to be obvious: the sky is blue, the earth is round, my shoes (generally) go on my feet, and so on. Many people also contain a deep knowledge of certain subjects, whether it be drumming rhythms and patterns, the mating activities of a specific type of insect, disaster and critical infrastructure risks, or the intricacies of guiding a two hundred and seventy-seven thousand kilogram Airbus A380 from New York to Paris.

For many people, the places where they have deep knowledge often seem like fountains of “obvious” wisdom. A drummer may have no problem playing in a syncopated 10/8 beat, an emergency management professional will likely be able to rhyme off the impacts from any type of disaster, and a pilot doesn’t think twice about flipping the same switches and throwing the same levers that they’ve done on every other flight because it is knowledge that they would classify as “obvious”.

In many cases though, the information isn’t as obvious as people may think. In fact, pilots are required to use checklists when performing any essential action so that they don’t miss a step that they may consider obvious and end the flight in tragedy. This effective method of risk management is starting to make its way out of the cockpit and into other professions where obvious things were sometimes overlooked. It is now quite common to have surgical checklists in operating theatres. This ensures that no critical step is overlooked during surgery, and even goes so far as to double check that the correct surgery is being performed on the correct area.

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Even for professionals who are deeply engaged in their job day after day, things aren’t always so obvious. For people who aren’t deeply engaged with that subject, things that are obvious to insiders may not be so to outsiders. Documents written for a varied audience, one that will likely include people outside of those who would be subject matter experts, must keep that in mind. Just because something seems obvious doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be said. One of the best examples of this comes from page three of the European Commission’s Global Report on Food Crises 2019.

Ending conflicts, empowering women, nourishing and educating children, improving rural infrastructure and reinforcing social safety-nets are essential for a resilient, stable, and hunger-free world.

Global Report on Food Crises 2019 – European Commission Food Safety Information Network

Absolutely obvious when you read it, but not something that everyone would make the connection to otherwise.

What is obvious to those who live in a world steeped in specific information is not necessarily obvious to everyone outside of that world. To assume otherwise is to start from a place of inequality. For people who write to influence others (most writers), leaving some readers at the door because of the assumption that something is obvious means alienating a certain section of readers before they even get to the heart of your writing.

So, for everyone who writes for audiences outside of their specific niche, for everyone who writes something that might get read outside of their profession, for everyone who puts something online with the hope that it gets read, please state the obvious. Unless the obvious is stated, you leave your readers at a disadvantage.

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