How to give instructions

There’s a common story in America about a hapless tourist asking a Maine farmer for directions. After thinking a moment, the farmer rattles off a lengthy lists of directions along the lines of “…take the old side road up a ways past the Anderson’s farm and turn left when you see Smithy’s cow. After a while you’ll come to a broke-down truck, turn right and cut across the Kingses’ back lot to…”. Inevitably, though, the farmer winds up concluding “but you can’t get there from here!”

Much of our daily communications consists of giving instructions, whether helping friends find our new house or office or writing a manual for a new product or helping a jury decide the guilt or innocence of the accused. The popularity of blog posts (like this one) with titles that tell you “how to” do something, and even whole sites like Instructables.com and WikiHow.com, suggests the importance of good, clear instructions.

And yet, so many of the instructions we get are so bad. Electronics come with poorly translated manuals that are often more humorous than useful; software comes with thick manuals that sit, unopened, beside our computers for years; we finish assembling our flat-pack furniture with a handful of extra parts and doors that don’t close right; and so on.

Giving good instructions, whether written or spoken, requires a certain kind of mindset, one that few of us can hold onto for very long. It is hard to put ourselves in the place of a person who doesn’t know how to do something — especially when we can do it so easily and with little, if any, thought. The Yankee farmer in the old story above gives great instructions — for himself. For the tourist, though, the instructions are meaningless — they depend too strongly on local knowledge that the outsider would have no way of knowing. He truly “can’t get there from here”, not without the local’s specialized understanding.

In his book Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Learning to Give, Take, and Use Instructions, Richard Saul Wurman outlines a simple set of conditions that a good set of instructions must meet (no matter how complex the desired outcome is). In order to be effective, a good set of instructions must provide information about six things:

  • Mission: What do the instructions show me how to do?
  • Destination: What will I see, hear, experience when I’ve followed the instructions?
  • Procedure: What are the exact steps I need to follow to reach the destination and accomplish the mission? What tools and equipments will I need? What special information do I need to finish?
  • Time: How long will it take me to finish? (Other measures might be appropriate, like “how much money will I have to spend?” or “how far will I have to drive?”)
  • Anticipation: What difficulties should I expect to encounter on the way? How should I prepare for the project?; and
  • Failure: What will happen if I screw up? What does failure look like?

“Failure” and “Anticipation” are the most overlooked among these — which is what makes the assembly instructions with a lot of “assembly required” furniture so frustrating. We are rarely told when a piece should slide easily into place, or when it needs to be forced (anticipation) or that if a door is put on upside-down it won’t close properly (failure).

Let’s apply these principles to the topic of this post.

  • The mission of the post is to teach you how to give instructions.
  • After following these instructions, you’ll be able to give good, solid instructions on any topic you know. Unfortunately, you won’t see the results until you actually give instructions to someone else.
  • The procedure is probably the simplest part: break down the task into short steps and give them, in order, to your reader or listener. Remember, though, the lesson of the Yankee farmer: your listener or reader doesn’t know what you know, or else s/he wouldn’t need instructions. If you do not know the extent of the other person’s knowledge, assume he or she knows nothing, and be sure to cover the most basic steps. If you do know the level of your audience’s pre-existing knowledge, tailor your instructions to fit. In other words, break the task into th smallest, simplest tasks your audience will understand, and explain each step fully and literally.
  • The time it takes to give instructions depends, obviously, on what you’re showing how to do. An important measure, though, is attention: how much time and energy can your audience reasonably be expected to invest into a project. If it takes you half an hour to explain how to open a pack of gum, your audience will naturally get bored and stop paying attention.
  • The biggest difficulty in giving instructions is, as already noted, over-estimating what your audience already knows. Telling someone to remove a part on their car using a torque wrench doesn’t help much if they don’t know how to use a torque wrench, or even what one is. Problems can also arise when you fail to adequately describe a point — it often is not clear until several steps later that a failure has occurred, and the only thing to do for it is to trace your steps backwards until you find the error.
  • If your friends end up in Peoria, IL (assuming you don’t live there) instead of at your office, there’s something wrong with your insructions. That is, if the actual outcome differs from the desired outcome, your instructions have failed.

Given how often we do it, you’d think that we’d all be able to give instructions pretty well. And we do, when we’re giving instructions to our friends and family, for a good reason: we share quite a bit of our knowledge and understanding with them. Where we fall down is when asked to give instructions to our employees or colleagues, to users of our products, to readers of our websites, and so on — people whose backgrounds, educations, and life experiences may differ sharply from our own. Use the six types of information outlined above to make sure that you provide them with the information they need to buy or use your product or to complete the projects that both their success and yours rely on.

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