I was reminded of this little call to arms the other day when we purchased one of those pieces of furniture that you put together yourself. Now, I don’t say this is typical of all men, but it certainly is true of the man I married – he doesn’t read the instructions!

Out comes the box, and is quickly unpacked. There are little packets of things that look vaguely important that get put to one side, and the big bits are pondered over. Lying in the bottom of the now almost empty box is a lonely piece of paper – the instructions. I’m the one that takes it out and reads it. When I suggest that perhaps things might go a little quicker if he read the instructions, my deeply involved husband mutters that ‘they’re never right anyway

Eventually we get it constructed, with a couple of marital spats, when I suggest that perhaps the instructions did have point when they asked him to use bolt C with nut X; but often we have a small pile of assorted hardware surplus to requirements remaining at the end. And I have a sense of unease whenever I place something on the supposedly completed coffee table.

While there are some people who just will not follow instructions, there are others who just cannot give instructions. Often, we don’t realise that what we are engaged in is actually giving instructions. The staff member in the post office who is explaining how to fill out the passport form is giving instructions; the guy in the newsagent who explains to me in detail that I am in the wrong suburb and how I can get to the right one, is giving instructions and the engineer who explains to the builder what needs to be done is giving instructions.

If so many of us are doing it, why are we getting it so wrong? The man in the post office who thought he understood it all, filled out the form incorrectly; I thought I followed the newsagent’s instruction perfectly so why did I not get to where I was supposed to; and why did the builder completely misunderstand the engineer?

There’s a common story in Outback Australia about a hapless tourist asking a local farmer for directions. After thinking a moment, the farmer rattles off a lengthy list of directions along the lines of “…take the old side road up past the Anderson’s mailbox, 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 Williams’ back to the creek…” Inevitably, though, the farmer winds up concluding “but you can’t get there from here!”

Giving good instructions, whether written or spoken, requires a certain kind of ability to be able 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 Aussie 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.

Far too often when giving instructions we start from an assumed knowledge base, as did the farmer above. We then build our set of instructions from this base and of course the person we are instructing falls at the first hurdle – he doesn’t know the knowledge base we used so cannot use our instructions. It is conservatively estimated that over 60% of down time is because work has to be done again, correctly or differently. Or Projects need to be redefined, re-organised or re-done. If instructions were to be given clearly and correctly, and if the listener was able to query and confirm perhaps much of the ‘down’ time could be converted into ‘up’ time!

In order to be effective, a good set of instructions must provide information about five things: let’s consider it from the listener’s point of view.

Mission: What needs to be done, where should I end up.

Procedure: What are the exact steps I need to follow to reach the destination and accomplish the mission? What tools and equipment will I need? What special information do I need to finish?

Time: How long will it take me to finish? – When is the project, etc required to be completed. (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?

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 Aussie farmer: your listener or reader doesn’t know what you know, or else they 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 the smallest, simplest tasks your audience will understand, and explain each step fully and literally.

Always check to see if the listener has actually received the information exactly as you intended it to be received. “Just to be sure I didn’t leave anything out, let’s reconfirm what I said.” Ask them to repeat back to you what the task is. Ask questions like “What should you do if …… is not available?” Give them time to ask questions themselves. Make sure that they are confident that they have the information they need to complete the task in the time frame allowed. If they have a problem ~ “I doubt we’ll be able to finish in the necessary time with Jim off on sick leave.” – address it. In this case, either extend the time allowed or roster another person to the team.

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 Roma (assuming you don’t live there) instead of at your office, there’s something wrong with your instructions. 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 education and life experiences may differ sharply from our own. Use the five 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.

Michele @ Trischel

Information in this article is taken from Trischel’s Business Communication Workbook ~and my husband!

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