By Gordon Rugg
Stating the obvious is an activity unlikely to win you many friends, or to influence many people in a direction that you would like. However, sometimes you have to do it.
So, why do you sometimes have to state the obvious, and how can you turn this problem to advantage? That’s the topic of this post. I’ll use the worked example of risks, both obvious and less obvious. (Reassuring note: I don’t go into scary details…)
There are assorted bad reasons for stating the obvious, such as not having the brain fully in gear, or not caring. These do not give a good impression.
There are, however, a few situations where you need to state the obvious. A common one is that you’re giving an overview, and that you need to include the obvious for completeness, alongside the less obvious things that show you in a much better light.
Some careful wording can help you to turn this situation to your advantage. I’ll work through key points of the wording in stages.
You can start by describing what you’re about to say as “obvious”. Although this may not look like the greatest start, in fact it’s a pretty good way to begin, because it implies that you’ll be mentioning non-obvious ones separately.
Usually, beginning with “An obvious…” is better than beginning with “The obvious…”.
This is because “The obvious…” implies that what you have identified the item which is most obvious. That’s asking for trouble. A cynical, critical reader is likely to view this as a challenge to identify something more obvious. Finding something more obvious is usually fairly easy, because human beings tend to overlook the very, very obvious because it’s so familiar that it doesn’t get noticed.
Beginning with “An obvious” or “Some obvious” sidesteps this problem. Another way of sidestepping it is described in the next section.
The word “include” is your friend in many situations, because it implies that you know other examples, but have spared the reader from a full brain-dump. The words “is” and “are” imply that you are about to give the full list, which sets you up for problems if you’ve missed some examples.
So, using the example of risks, this gives us: “Some obvious risks include…” or more briefly, “Obvious risks include…”
There’s a lot of subtext in those words, all of it working in your favour.
In addition to
The phrasing “Obvious risks include…” is strong, but a cynical reader may still wonder whether you’re actually going to mention any non-obvious risks later, or whether you’ll just stop at the end of the obvious ones. (Yes, some people do just stop at the end of the obvious ones…)
You can prevent that suspicion from arising by starting your sentence with phrasing such as: “In addition to obvious risks such as…” which makes it clear that you are going to handle the non-obvious risks as well as the obvious ones.
Where do you go next?
In case you’re wondering, it’s not usually a good idea to show the reader a list neatly divided into two sections labeled as “obvious risks” and “non-obvious risks”. It’s usually a much better strategy to base your list of risks on the literature, if possible.
One way is to use a list from a classic source on the topic (e.g. “Smith & Jones (2003) give the following list of risks, ranked by frequency”).
Sometimes, though, there isn’t a single suitable list, and that’s where having a good opening sentence about obvious and non-obvious risks is helpful. You can then create your own list, with the reassuring knowledge that you won’t get off to a bad start if the first item on your list is an obvious one, because the reader knows from your opening sentence that less obvious items will follow.
Looking further forward, the “include” phrasing can be very useful, in various forms. It shows that you know actual examples, which is a good signal to send out, without limiting you to those examples. This is particularly useful if you’re writing a plan, where you want to show that you know what you’re doing, without committing yourself to one particular approach. You can do this with phrasing such as “Possible methods include…”
One thing to remember when doing this is the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.” which is a common cause of confusion. “i.e.” comes from the Latin “id est” meaning “that is”. “e.g.” comes from the Latin “exempli gratia” meaning “for the sake of example”. There’s a long tradition of Latin teachers using Dad-joke-style humour to help people remember Latin phrases, so I’ll draw on that by saying that “i.e.” will “ti.e.” you down, whereas “e.g.” will “e.g.spand” your options. (I didn’t say that it was a good tradition, just that it’s a long one…)
On which note, I’ll end. I hope you find this useful.