Why It’s OK To Be Obvious

“There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it” – Dostoyevski, Diary of A Writer

“People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” – Samuel Johnson

Now and then I’m told what I wrote was obvious. Readers will say “I’ve heard it before” or “your book was excellent, but nothing new.”  I’ve learned this is often, but not always, an empty critique. Here’s why:

1. Repeating a message is often necessary

We still haven’t learned to consistently practice the golden rule, follow the Ten Commandments, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or most of civilizations basic laws and precepts. Being reminded of important ideas is necessary because:

  • We forget
  • It can take several times before we understand
  • We need reminders to put ideas into practice

No one learns everything the first time. And even when learned, we sometimes lose our way and forget to follow perfectly good advice.

2. Rather than worry if something is obvious, ask better questions

There are many different ways to say the same basic message. But it’s those differences that make something funny, memorable, or moving. Simply rejecting something because it’s obvious (or more likely just familiar to you and your personal knowledge) denies you of the opportunity to experience those things. Instead, ask questions like:

  • Is the writer making good points?
  • Are the stories compelling?
  • Is there an angle offered that’s helpful?
  • Can I use what I’m learning?
  • If there is a better single reference for this obvious thing, name it

Being obvious is certainly a mistake if none of the above apply, but otherwise there is value.  As a writer, when I’m told a reader couldn’t apply what I wrote, or the stories didn’t relate to their lives, that’s more useful criticism. If they tell me of a better alternative, I can go read it and learn from it. But “that’s obvious” doesn’t on its own suggest I should have changed anything.

3. Sometimes being radically different means you are wrong.

A book on basic math will, at some point, explain that 2 + 2 = 4. Any writing that about universal themes (love, happiness, progress) will cover ground others have before. The better questions are:

  • Does the writing provoke something useful?
  • Does it motivate?
  • Does it inspire?
  • Is it convincing you to do something better for yourself or the world?

For example, I don’t believe radical new theories on creativity or public speaking, two areas of my expertise, are necessary. No theory will do the hard work or take the risks for you. This is perhaps my meta-theory about writing itself. It explains why I’m unlikely to write a book called “The radical new amazing theory on X”. I don’t believe such things exist for the interesting challenges in this world, and books that claim there is one focus more on novelty than utility. Even when popular, these books have little influence relative to their sales.

Artist Nina Paley said “Don’t be original; be obvious. When you state the obvious, you actually seem original… Likewise, the more specific the feelings, experiences, stories – the more universal they appear.”

4. If it’s old to you, it might be new to someone else

One of my favorite stories from Confessions of a Public Speaker is the often quoted study on how people are more afraid of speaking to a crowd than dying (read the excerpt here). Everyone’s heard this, and many believe it, but few knows the source. It was a thrill to dig up the actual research and show how empty it was. But I did have someone tell me, “I’d heard that debunking before Scott”, to which I wanted to reply “but what about the 99% of the population that hasn’t?”

In The Myths of Innovation, a similar thing happened with Newton and the apple. I was amazed to discover how unlikely the apple legend was. I’d been reading about invention and science my whole life and didn’t know. I figured even if more people than I realized knew about this, it was a stellar reference for making larger points about epiphany stories. Just because you might find a story obvious, doesn’t mean the larger point it’s being used to make isn’t important, meaningful or relevant.

Ideas can be both obvious and potent, and surprising and impotent.

Also see:

 

22 Responses to “Why It’s OK To Be Obvious”

  1. jenifer daniels

    7 times – you have to repeat a message 7 times for it to sink in. in that sense, nothing is “obvious”.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Jenfier: It depends on the thing.

      Some things you get the first time. Some things you never get. Some things you get, and forget later. Others you get and always remember.

      The 7 number sounds made up – get the point in spirit, but I hate false specificity.

      Reply
  2. Angel

    I’ve always been at a loss when people dish out empty critiques like these. Thanks for the post.

    When it comes to messages sinking in for people, I always think about one of my favorite quotes by Louis Armstrong: “There are some people, that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.”

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Angel: Of course, sometimes the critiques are right, and I failed at all the above questions. But being obvious or not isn’t a critique in itself – that’s my point.

      And something I should have said: everyone is different. What’s obvious / new / boring / exciting for one person won’t be for another. You never get everyone no matter how good what you do is.

      Reply
  3. Kevin Morrill

    One thing I wish people did more often when they’re stating things that are well treaded territory: figure out why people aren’t doing this already. What are the real barriers that prevent people from implementing your great advice? So much of the advice I read from people in tech startups is old advice that is nothing new, but I think there are reasons they’re still relevant.

    Reply
  4. Josh

    There’s a growing trend in presenting, at least that I’ve seen, where people try and be creative with the message, wrapping it in flowery language, or in a big reveal at the end of the speech, or attacking it from such an obtuse angle that the angle becomes the story. “Being Obvious” isn’t just about simplifying the message, or repetition; there’s also the “make sure your point makes sense, and that your attendees take away the message you want them to take away. Be specific about it!”

    great stuff, scott, as always. One thing I quite like about your blog/writing/etc is that you work hard to provide crisp examples that illustrate what you’re talking about – that really helps your acolytes (us :)) put the concepts into action. thanks for that.

    Reply
  5. Karl Krantz

    The timing of a message has a lot to do with how useful it is to me. I could hear something 10 times while my subconscious is working on one set of problems, then later I hear the same message with a different set of problems in my head and it’s like hearing the message for the first time.
    Repeating my exposure to important messages even after I think I “get it” has paid off for me many times.

    BTW, I think some text is switched around on point 3. “more afraid of dying than speaking to a crowd” I think you meant “more afraid of speaking to a crowd than dying?”

    Reply
  6. Alissa

    Scott, one other thing I’ve noticed re: obvious is that whenever something new *does* come out, it often makes so much sense that the audience says, “oh, sure. Duh. That’s obvious.” Even though we have that sense, it may not in fact have *been* obvious until articulated. So the critique is suspect on that level too.

    Reply
  7. Ricardo Patrocínio

    I’d like to add that when I read the same thing in different places it gives me a sense of credibility because there are more than one person defending the same idea.

    Reply
  8. Chelsea B

    I think of that old saying that there is really nothing original in the world, just the same old thing restated, interpreted, appropriated. I hear this often in the arts.

    What I find helpful is to be humble- look at the obvious over and over, recombine it and extrapolate- until you have a new COMBINATION of things. A profound amalgamation of your own set of obvious- that is how obvious is useful to me.

    Reply
  9. PM Hut

    I think the essence of unclear requirements/tasks/etc… is laziness. Some project managers/clients are just too lazy to explain what they really want to be done.

    Reply
  10. Piet van Oostrum

    I agree with you that there isn’t much wrong with stating obvious things. However, you still have to be careful with taking `obvious’ things for granted. Take your example of 2 + 2 = 4. For centuries this was obvious. But arithmetic modulo n would have been impossible without challenging this obviousness. And non-euclidean geometry challenged the `obvious’ euclidean axioma.
    Similarly in physics. For centuries it was obvious that the sun rotated around the earth. Just look at it and you can see that. But Gallileo went beyond the obvious.
    Relativity theory and quantum mechanics are other examples.When you are in a train that has a speed of 100 km/h and you walk inside the train in the same direction with a speed of 10 km/h, it is obvious that your speed relative to the earth is 110 km/h. But Einstein had the courage to try to think otherwise.

    I think before you write about the obvious you better check very hard if there are no alternatives.

    Reply
  11. Rayann

    Thanks alot – your answer solved all my plorbems after several days struggling

    Reply
  12. chris

    Good points.
    Its worth saying that even the same thing told in a different way changes its meaning or its power.

    The same people who say they have heard it all before, or what is being siad is obvious, are the same people who wonder around art galleries and say ‘I could have done this’

    Reply
  13. mdawaffe

    I liked this post, Scott, but didn’t think you were really saying anything new here.

    Reply
  14. Colin

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve often wondered why people bother commenting with only useless feedback. The “nothing new here” ones bug me the most. Like you said, old news to one person might be new to another. And restating things with your own spin or opinion often serves to reinforce.

    When I read a variety of blog entries posted by a variety of writers all speaking to similar ends, it helps me to understand conventional wisdom, form my own opinions and have more meaningful discussions with clients, colleagues and friends.

    Reply

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