A few years ago, a comedian took a video of himself with his two children as he followed their written instructions to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In the video, he follows his kids’ instructions exactly. As you might have guessed, it goes rather poorly.
Instruction: Put the peanut butter on the bread.Dad: Puts the jar of peanut butter on the slice of bread.
Instruction: Take one piece of bread, spread it around with the butter knife.
Dad: Takes a plain piece of bread and spreads it around on the counter using a butter knife.
Instruction: Get some jelly, rub it on the other half of the bread.
Dad: Rubs the jar of jelly on the other slice of bread.
And so it goes. Complete chaos. While this video is hilarious, it speaks to a fairly common issue in the world of business. How often do we give or receive instructions that are lacking? If you’ve ever had to build a complicated piece of furniture from Ikea, you know the utter rage such things can incite. Despite the fact that Ikea does everything it can to make its instructions perfect—pictures and all.
It’s not that simple
How often do we leave gaps in our explanations, and send someone off with instructions made up of 50% assumptions that they think the same way we do or know the same things we do? It’s not surprising, really. Writing instructions—good instructions—is tedious. It’s boring. We already know what we’re asking for, leaving us inclined to leave out the obvious.
But not everyone has the same brain, the same frame of mind, or the same references. This means leaving out what’s obvious for you could be leaving out a key ingredient for the reader.
It’s all in the details
When you hire a new employee, change leadership, or implement a new piece of technology, how common is it for things to go awry? Think about how easy it is for roles to get mixed up or tasks to be incorrectly completed. This type of thing doesn’t just frustrate everyone—it wastes time and money. And the worst part is, it’s avoidable. If only you had prepared thorough instructions.
So next time you’re writing out instructions, follow these steps:
- Write down everything.
- Don’t skip anything.
- Walk yourself through the instructions after you’ve written them. Take them literally.
- Ask someone else to read through them and look for gaps.
- Treat it like you’re talking to an alien. Don’t assume they know what anything means.
This isn’t a flashy topic, but it’s an essential one. While you’ve been trained to do many things, you’ve probably never been trained to write instructions. We all just assume everyone knows how—but they don’t really. Because “common sense” is dependent on common experience—and those aren’t the same for everyone.
Next time you’re writing instructions, ask yourself: is it worth a short amount of tedium now to be as detailed as possible, or a more frustrated, repeated tedium later when you have to start over? The answer is obvious.
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Photo by Iurii Golub