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How to Give Instructions

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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:

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  • 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 lon

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