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Four Instructive Questions for Instructions

Four Instructive Questions for Instructions

Instructions

    Whether you’re telling the new intern at work just how to file a new client’s folder, or giving your sister a rundown on how Fido likes his dinner prepared, you’re giving instructions. As a general rule, it’s easier to give instructions in person — the instructee can ask for clarification on anything he doesn’t understand.

    When you’re writing down instructions, though, it can be much harder to explain each step needed to complete the task. Think about doing your own taxes: the IRS’ instructions are enough to drive some of us to paying hundreds of dollars just to avoid dealing with the dratted things. As you write your instructions, keep the following questions in mind to make both writing them and following them at least a little easier.

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    What is the end result?

    “Rinse. Wash. Repeat.” The typical shampoo instructions bother me on a fundamental level. It’s mostly that I’m not sure when I should stop repeating. Just how shiny is my hair supposed to be in the end? How will I know when it’s clean enough to stop washing? I try to avoid getting existential in the shower, but this set of instructions shows the problem with half the directions that cross my desk. There’s no end, no goal, no product that makes it easy for the person following along at home to know that she can stop.

    When writing a set of instructions, the first thing you should make note of is the end result. Even a good title can take care of this task: a cook following instructions on “How to Boil a Pot of Water” can probably figure out that he can stop when the water starts boiling. Want to prove the point? Leave an untitled set of instructions on an office assistant’s desk and head out for the weekend. Long before you get to the beach, you’ll be getting a phone call to ask just what is sitting on the desk.

    Do you have the same starting point?

    I once wound up driving almost fifteen miles out of my way trying to get to a friend’s house. I followed his directions to the letter — I thought. Turns out, he had given me directions from some place quite close to his house, assuming I could get there on my own. And I probably could have gotten that far without directions, if I had known that I needed to start there.

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    Make your starting point clear, whether you’re giving driving directions or telling someone how to hook up their new television. The starting point may not even be an address; it may be a list on ingredients or necessary equipment that your user should have ahead of time. Think about running a combine out at the farm. If you had to run one, you might be able to, with good instructions. But would you recognize the combine in the first place?

    Are you speaking the same language?

    My version of the English language doesn’t quite match one of my clients. I mentioned that perhaps we should use social networking to market his business. He was with me to that point, but when I put together a list of steps for how we should proceed, he wasn’t familiar with a whole set of terms: “What the heck is tweeting? Do I need to buy a bird?” Some times we get so used to the jargon or dialect of our day-to-day conversations that we don’t realize that someone new to the concept — the exact type of person needing instructions — doesn’t use the same words in the same way.

    Your instructions don’t need to devolve into tasks within tasks and attempts to introduce that new intern to all the office terminology in one go. Just write your instructions to a less knowledgeable audience — think about your dear grandma who just isn’t up on modern day slang while you’re writing.

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    These questions can apply to visual instructions just as much as written directions. Symbols and icons don’t always communicate well, despite the claim that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ One lasting example is the sign on the ladies’ room door — that all-important instruction on just who is allowed entry. In the U.S., we have that funky stick figure with the fins on either side, meant to represent a skirt. In many Middle Eastern countries, though, the ladies’ room is indicated with a veil. Icons can trip us up just as easily as words.

    Can you test it?

    A set of instructions don’t need the same user testing that your new website design should probably undergo. But handing it to the guy at the next desk over, and asking “Does this make sense?” can speed up the time it takes someone to follow your directions by hours. Even thirty seconds of minor corrections is not too much effort, especially if you’re paying someone by the hour to complete this task. In some situations, of course, testing is impossible. It’s worth the effort if you can arrange it, though.

    If you are planning to use the same set of instructions multiple times, it’s worth asking the person who carried out the task to let you know of any specific problems. Clear them up now and you can minimize problems down the road.

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    Last thoughts

    And even perfectly-phrased instructions aren’t a guarantee that everyone will figure out what you mean. But they do up the odds that your new intern will survive her first day in the office and that you’ll manage to keep all of your hair. So write your instructions, breath deeply and relax with the knowledge that you’ve written a darn good set of instructions.

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    Last Updated on June 12, 2019

    Top 10 Ways to Lead More Effectively with Humor

    Top 10 Ways to Lead More Effectively with Humor

    Humor and laughter provide so many rewards. Studies have shown 20 seconds of laughter yield the same benefits as 3 minutes of hard rowing. A Robert Half International study reported 84% of executives believe a worker with a good sense of humor does a better job. Incorporating humor more effectively in the workplace allows you to defuse difficult situations, reduce stress, create attention for new ideas, build rapport, and be a more approachable and memorable leader.

    With those benefits, it behooves you to hone your workplace comedic skills. So in the tradition of David Letterman, here are the top 10 ways to more effectively lead with humor!

    #10. Look for Joy in Life

    An important step is continually looking for joy throughout your life. This happens in a variety of ways:

    • Focus less on yourself and more on helping others. Need help? Read “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” the classic by Dale Carnegie.
    • Laugh more – kids reportedly laugh 400 times per day vs. 15 times for adults. Aim for laughing 40 times daily to be at least 10% of your former self!
    • Regularly read humorous comic strips and look for quips and funny comments in your reading.
    • Even in challenging situations, hunt for something funny or humorous you can take away.

    #9. Learn What Makes You Laugh

    If you’re trying to laugh 40 times daily, it’s important to know what makes you laugh and have ready access to laugh-provokers. Figure out 107 things which make you laugh. Unrealistic? Hardly! Why 107? Because 107 is funnier than 100! Here’s a recipe for listing what makes you laugh by simply identifying:

    • 13 Movies
    • 11 TV Shows
    • 5 Words or Phrases
    • 19 Personal Stories
    • 5 Cartoons
    • 7 Audio or Video Pieces
    • 11 Comedians
    • 7 TV Personalities
    • 7 Funny Photos
    • 7 People You Know
    • 15 of Anything Else
    • TOTAL = 107 Funny Things

    Collect & save these humor starters in a “Smile File” when you quickly need a laugh or comedic inspiration.

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    #8. Use Your Own Comedic Material

    Personal experiences are the most genuine humor sources for effective leadership. Look for humor in situations from your own life:

    • Funny things you have said or others have said to you
    • Pratfalls, be they mental, interpersonal, & physical
    • Embarrassing moments or unexpected happenings
    • Times of change or learning
    • Difficult life events (yes, even these can be humor sources)

    When turning personal situations into comedic material, remember lessons learned from a childhood humor staple: Knock-Knock Jokes. These simple jokes work because the knock-knock structure highlights familiar situations, uses only essential words and phrases, and clearly signals a laughing opportunity. They also demonstrate how humor springs from surprise. The laughs come from not knowing who or what exactly is behind the door based on the initial response to “Who’s there?”

    #7. Adapt Somebody Else’s Material

    Beyond your own experiences, there’s a tradition of “borrowing & adapting” (I didn’t say stealing) funny stuff from others. That’s why old-time comedian Milton Berle was called the “Thief of Bad Gags.”

    Part of borrowing successfully is using easily accessible humor sources in ways many don’t consider. Beyond simply Googling “funny” in front of quotes, one-liners, definitions, pictures, or videos, here are two other common sources you can adapt:

    • Cartoons – You can use cartoons in various ways by showing one in a presentation, telling the cartoon’s story (potentially making yourself a character) without any images, or using its punch line as a starting point for new humor.
    • Comedians – Mainstream comedians’ jokes or catch phrases are another source to modify and adapt to your personality or work situation. Watch lots of comedians and learn how professionals do it so well.

    #6. Understand Your Audience

    Using humor in a leadership position requires understanding boundaries on its proper use. It all starts with really understanding your audience by:

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    • Paying attention to top management’s attitudes toward humor.
    • Knowing the audience’s composition – this directly affects which humor types are appropriate.
    • Loving your audience as much or more than you poke fun at them.
    • Inviting others into humor since you can’t assume they share your same humor sensibilities.

    In case you’re contemplating using ad lib humor, completely knowing your audience is even more vital. Ad-libs have the potential for going horribly wrong because audience sensibilities have been misjudged. It’s very beneficial to actually plan and rehearse ad libs. It may sound odd, but identify common work situations you encounter and think through what usually goes wrong or provides a source for potential humor. Work out some “safe” funny comebacks to use as “planned” ad libs.

    #5. Know the Rules and Boundaries

    There are blatant humor no-no’s in the workplace which are quite acceptable for an onstage comedian. At work, avoid harmful practical jokes or pranks, heavily sarcastic comments, and humor rooted in religious, sexual, ethnic, or racial themes. Think you know your work setting well enough to tread on this dangerous ground? Here’s some advice: DON’T. The way questionable humor will be perceived by a workplace audience is too much of an unknown to take big risks when your career is at stake.

    Use this checkpoint to actually see if your intended workplace humor is SAFE. To pass the SAFE test, all of these statements need to be true regarding your joke, comment, or image:

    • I can Say/Show this to my mother.
    • It wouldn’t Anger me if I were the butt of the joke.
    • This wouldn’t trigger an FCC violation
    • Everyone in the audience will be able to get it.

    With even a hint of one false answer, dramatically modify your idea or better yet, abandon it and start over.

    #4. Get over Yourself

    Effective leaders don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re comfortable laughing at themselves and letting others be funny as well. Leaders should become adept at appropriately using self-deprecating humor, i.e., self-directed humor downplaying your own talents, stature, or accomplishments

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    You don’t want to use self-deprecating humor on simply any topic, however. It’s most effectively & appropriately used in:

    • Situations where you’re comfortable & self-confident
    • Areas where your credibility & competence are clearly established
    • Ways that fit your known personality & sensibilities

    Remember – when trying to borrow someone else’s self-deprecating humor, you need to share that person’s perspective & situation. If not, it’s simply deprecating! I once heard a decidedly non-technical Marketing VP call out “data geeks” in the audience. While that’s what they called themselves, she wasn’t a part of their group, and her comment, intended to build affiliation, fell completely flat.

    #3. Need Humor Ideas? Just Look Around

    The workplace is filled with situations lending themselves to comedy. Humor springs from exaggeration, wordplay, misunderstandings, ambiguity, contradictions, paradoxes, pain, and inconsistencies. If you work in any type of business or organizational setting, there are plenty of these situations to go around!

    As a leader, it’s your role to use the proper opptunities to encourage and employ humor successfully by ensuring that:

    • Your humor makes others feel good about themselves.
    • Hurtful fun isn’t made of those less tenured than you in the organization.
    • You don’t use humor when agitated since it can lead to apparent meanness.

    #2. Surround Yourself with Joy

    If you’re looking for more joy and levity in leadership, surround yourself with joyful people. These are people who are funny, easily spur laughter, and routinely cheer people up through their presence.

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    Cultivate relationships with these types of people. Spend time with them, learn from their successful uses of humor, and emulate elements of their approaches that work for you.

    Beyond basking in the joy these people create, select 3 or 4 of them to be an informal comedy team. As your comedy team, solicit their opinions to help you generate and refine humor ideas. They can also provide perspectives on potentially questionable humor material that makes it through the SAFE test, but still feels like it might not be right for a workplace audience.

    #1. Dive into the Fun

    Ultimately, the most important part of successfully using humor as a leader is actually sharing it in the workplace. Here are a few final tips to keep in mind:

    • Practice your humor in appropriate, low-risk settings to find out what works before trying it out with a bigger audience.
    • Signal a laughing opportunity through your words, actions, and tone. It’s also a good practice to give people “permission” to laugh in the workplace.
    • Finally, be earnest in using humor; don’t focus on laughs so much as lightening and adding fun into work settings.

    Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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