Whether you are creating standard operating procedures for your high-powered business, developing instructions for use for a new medical device, or writing directions for your elderly neighbor on how to check e-mail, it is critical to design your instructions in a manner that gets the expected results. Here are a few key instructions…for writing instructions.
Know where you are going
Before getting into the step-by-step details be clear about the end objective for your instructions so that the person following the instructions is clear from the start about where they are heading. Include a clear heading, title, or lead-in objective statement to make sure the person following your instructions has the end in mind every step of the way.
Talk the Talk
It is critical to know your audience! Make sure to use language that is understandable to the user of your instructions – see the example provided in the accompanying image to this post. Do not use overly technical jargon if you are delivering instructions to a non-technical person.
Write in the affirmative. It is generally easier to understand positive affirmative information than the same information expressed in a negative way. Users should be instructed “what to do” rather than “what not to do”. Negatives should be avoided to reduce the possibility of errors and to reduce the time required to understand them; therefore, avoid prefixes such as, “ir-”, “in-”, “dis-” and “un-”.
Not so good: “Don’t cross the road unless you haven’t seen any cars coming.”
Better: “If no cars are coming, cross the road.”
Use active voice commands to clearly convey the required action for each step. The active voice is easier to read and understand. It usually uses fewer words and leaves no unanswered questions. In some cases using fewer words and leaving no unanswered questions may be especially important – such as the example below:
Just Okay: “The lion cage can be locked by pressing on the RED BUTTON”
Better: “To lock the cage, press the RED BUTTON”
For sequential instructions, write the tasks in the proper sequence so that the order of the words presented in the instruction match the sequence of events.
A little messy: “Sneeze after you cover your nose and mouth.”
Better: “Cover your nose and mouth before you sneeze.”
Short is Sweet
When possible, use brief, simple, explicit sentences to clearly deliver your directions. This type of instruction will be easier to understand than statements with multiple clauses. However, it is important to not forget the little guys. Omitting articles (“the”, “a”), prepositions (“of”, “by”), and relative pronouns (“that”, “which”, “who”) may save space, but may also reduce the user’s ability to accurately comprehend meaning.
Try to use these simple principles to improve your effectiveness when giving instructions in both your professional life and home life…and if you come up with some great instructions to teach your elderly neighbor (or family member) to check e-mail, please pass those along!