How to Give Better Instructions

Giving instructions so they will understand and do it right

50-70 minute presentation

Sometimes, perhaps often, you have to give instructions. It’s part of your job. Or you need to give directions how to get to a certain place. There are good directions and there are bad directions. You’ll know the results: if you don’t have to do it again, or fix mistakes, then you probably give good directions.

Here are three rules and twelve tips for giving good instructions.

First, here’s a quick look at the three rules.

Rule A: Give instructions in the best way for your listener.

Different people process information in different ways. You’ll need to know how to adapt the medium of your message to present instructions. Once you know their ‘modalities’ (their preferred sense of perception), the rest is a lot easier.  VAK

Use words your listener prefers. Listen to them and note their words to indicate things, i.e. “That doesn’t sound right” or “It just feels right” or “It makes sense.” If you use familiar language when directing people, they are much more likely to get your message.

Some people will prefer to hear concrete details first and then move to an overview. Others prefer you to start with the big picture and then provide examples.

If you are employed in an office, feel free to look up some typology test or MBTI or similar, to get a better insight into what kind of people there are in your ‘world’.

If you know the people who work for you, you should know what’s important to them and their communication style.

Rule B: Give your directions in more than one way.

If you are not sure which they prefer, explain your directions in more ways.  See above, Rule 1a.

People have different modes of info-intake.  Use diagrams, pictures. If necessary, do a role-play of what you expect from them. It can be useful to demonstrate in pantomime.

It’s also very useful to ask your listener questions while you’re explaining. This enhances understanding.

Bulleted lists are preferred. Just the facts, no fluff please. Especially in emails. But even face-to-face, people better respond to clear, concise instructions. Use a numbered bullet-list if necessary.

During your explanation of instructions, you will need to mention some option or necessity. A good way to explain this is an “if-then” chart: it helps explain the options and make people aware of important sub-tasks. (show chart)

List possible situations your listener might confront in the “If” column. Then, in the “Then” column list the response you expect. You can give them a list of important instructions to refer to as needed.

People have made sense of complex issues by telling stories, since the dawn of language. Use stories to help you make your points. But only mention important events. You can add lots of fluff when you tell bedtime stories. But economy of word is paramount.

Rule C: Check for / confirm understanding.

Stop from time to time and check to determine if your listener understands your message.

Stop if you see signs of not understanding (unusual change in facial expression). Stop after each key point to check and see if they understand.

Have your employee/listener demonstrate understanding in more than one way. A discussion on “what-if” scenarios are an excellent way to reinforce understanding.

Note key trouble points that others have had with similar instructions. Double check your listener’s understanding of each.

This may seem like an elaborate way to complete the simple task of giving instructions, but after only a few times of practicing the techniques, they become very natural.

Would you like to manage this with confidence:

  • Inspire teams and project groups to move forward, and make progress in spite of differences
  • Influence your boss or supervisor to go in the best direction – and give you credit
  • Persuade your spouse or partner to take action on an important decision
  • Explain and instruct employees with authority and influence
  • Get your kids saying “yes” to homework without kicking and screaming