Stop saying “obviously”

This post is part of the Our Mistakes series, in which we take a good hard look at things we’ve messed up and log our lessons. Our hope is no one else has to learn these things the hard way. 

Arthur Director of Strategy: We were on a video conference, walking a new client through an ERP solution we’d built for another partner and how it could address similar problems they were facing. I noticed Adam kept dropping obviously into the conversation. You know how once you hear someone say “um” a lot, you can’t stop noticing it? It was like that. Pretty soon obviously was the only thing I could hear. 

Adam Co-CEO, CMO: After the call, we were talking about how it went. Arthur asked, “Can I give you one small, random piece of feedback?” I didn’t know I was saying obviously so much, but I wasn’t surprised to find out. I wanted our new client to know that I understood the complexities of their business. That other ERP had a few parallels with what our new client needed, but it wasn’t a one-for-one match. It was a defense strategy: obviously we weren’t going to build the exact same thing. 

Arthur: Adam wasn’t defensive at all. He said, “Thanks, that’s really helpful feedback.” 

It’s a one-word conversation stopper

Arthur: I think obviously is such an unproductive word. I always have. It discourages questioning, discourages the gray zone — obviously pushes everything into black and white. Adam’s so good at being the technology expert in a room full of non-technical people. He can bridge that gap and talk about complex solutions so they make sense. But obviously is too much of a short cut when you’re trying to build a partnership with a new client. If they start trying to figure out what was so obvious, and why it wasn’t obvious to them, you’ve lost some trust. 

Adam: I was worried I looked like an asshole to our client. That night I was lying in bed, still thinking about it. I Googled “using the word obviously” and found a great post by Ryan Abel from Atomic Object. He calls obviously a “purely destructive word.” His explanation made sense to me. It’s a huge assumption that anything is obvious. If it’s not, calling it obvious doesn’t lift your partner up. Instead, it makes that disconnect worse. 

Apply the feedback across the board

Adam: Sometimes I still catch myself saying it. Turns out, I use obviously in emails too. “Obviously, the next steps are…” Those ones have been pretty easy to eliminate. It’s definitely a part of my stream of consciousness. 

Arthur: I’m not the word police! But it’s definitely been better. I think it’s raised the bar for conversations. When I hear it now, I go through a quick logic: Was that obviously used intentionally, or was it a slip? 

Our POV: Ask your team what you should stop saying 

Arthur: A lot of our work is done in tandem at Bilberrry. There’s no one better to tell me about my weird tics and unconscious body language than the person next to me in every important meeting. It’s how I found out a few years back that I tend to speak too slowly to clients, and use too many pauses. 

Adam: Eventually I’ll be able to stop it with all the obviously. It will go the way of unfortunately — another word I over-used before I got feedback to stop. Now whenever I see someone else say it or use it in an email, I have a really strong reaction. It’s only a matter of time.