Why It’s So Hard to Give Good Instructions

A hunter calls 9-1-1.

“Hello, operator,” he says breathlessly. “I’ve got an emergency on my hands. I’m out in the woods with my buddy. He’s passed out on the ground. He’s not moving. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. I think he’s dead. Tell me what to do.”

“OK, got it,” says the operator. “Just take a deep breath and calm down. The first thing to do is to make sure he’s really dead.”

Silence.

A few seconds pass.

The operator hears a gun shot.

Then the hunter gets back on the phone.

“OK,” he says. “Now what?”

This is an old joke. And it makes a point: The ability to give good instructions can be a matter of life and death.

Land mines in the theory of mind

Each of us has a theory of mind—an ability to describe our own mental states, infer the mental states of others, and remember that they differ.

People diagnosed with autism or schizophrenia can have a flawed theory of mind. They don’t seem to understand a fundamental fact: Different people can witness the same event and interpret it in different ways.

Or interpret the same instruction in different ways.

This is something that any of us can forget from time to time.

The curse of knowledge

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the “curse of knowledge”: Once we learn something, we forget what it’s like to not know it. This is one reason that what seems so incredibly clear to me can still confuse the heck out of you.

The curse of knowledge illumines what happened to the 9-1-1 operator in this story. I can just picture him giving the same instructions to hundreds of callers in circumstances similar to the hunter’s.

After all, this is thoroughly familiar territory to the operator. He’s got it down cold. He knows just what to say:

  • Calm down. 
  • Take a deep breath. 
  • Determine whether he’s really dead.

When giving these instructions, he can go on automatic.

And that’s precisely the problem. The operator did go on automatic. He got sloppy with the wording of his instructions. His curse of knowledge lead to an assumption: “Everyone knows that make sure he’s really dead means the same the same thing as determine whether he’s really dead.”

Isn’t it perfectly obvious?

Not to the hunter.

The curse of knowledge and the writer

The curse of knowledge awaits every writer. Authors of non-fiction “how to” books are especially vulernable. When they know their topic well, they can find it hard to believe that anyone misunderstands their instructions. Aren’t they perfectly obvious?

No. They’re not.

In fact, our writing often improves the moment we stop assuming that any written instructions are obvious.

Overcoming the curse of knowledge

There are at least 2 ways to overcome the curse of knowledge. Both of them are simple. Neither of them are easy:

  1. Spend a lot of time with people who do not share your expertise and practice giving them instructions.
  2. Imagine what it’s like to be someone who does not know what you know.

Here’s an exercise that involves both strategies: Give a draft of your instructions to your target readers. Ask them to actually perform the task. Then watch what they do.

This will give you an immediate sense of how the curse of knowledge affects your writing.

Be warned: This can be humbling.

It can also be enlightening—a path to making your instructions much more clear. And that can only be a good thing for your book.