6 Building Blocks of Good Instructions

We are awash in instructions. Most of our communication serves this purpose.

Teachers give instructions to students.

Parents give instructions to kids.

Doctors give instructions to patients.

Consultants give instructions to clients.

“Every successful communication is really an instruction in disguise—from love letters to company brochures,” notes Richard Saul Wurman in Information Anxiety 2.

Many nonfiction books also exist to give instructions. The tip-off is any title that starts with (or could start with) the words “how to.”

My clients write for people who want new outcomes in life—and want to know how to create those outcomes. This calls for instructions, delivered in a compassionate and competent way.

Yet giving instructions is a high art, and most of us don’t do it well. That’s why I often return to Wurman’s instructions for giving good instructions.

“When you start designing information around the intended action,” he writes, “your communications become more powerful.” With that action in mind, you can build your instructions around these 6 elements:

  • Reason
  • Destination
  • Procedure
  • Duration
  • Anticipation
  • Error

Wurman gives a simple example—an invitation to a party. The people sending the invitation have an intended action in mind: They want people to arrive at their house. Their invitation can include all 6 elements:

  • We’re having a dinner party to celebrate our anniversary (Reason).
  • We’d like you to come to our house next Friday (Destination).*
  • Our address is 1015 Forest. Get off at the Oak Park exit on the Eisenhower Expressway (Procedure).
  • The whole drive should take about 35 minutes in moderate traffic (Duration). 
  • On the expressway, you will pass Central Avenue and then Austin Avenue before you come to Oak Park (Anticipation).
  • If you see the exit for River Forest, you have gone too far (Error).

This is true even for actions that are more complex than attending a dinner party. Suppose that you’re writing a self-help book for recovering alcoholics and other drug addicts. Your topic is how to avoid relapse—returning to drug use after a period of abstinence. Each chapter of your book could focus on one of the building blocks:

  • Chapter 1: A Lifetime of Sanity and Sobriety (the reason for learning to prevent relapse)
  • Chapter 2: Feeling Cravings for Drugs—and Choosing Not to Act on Them (the destination, or goal, for acting on your book’s instructions)
  • Chapter 3: What to Do When You Feel Cravings (procedures—specific steps to take)
  • Chapter 4: Going for the Long Haul (a chapter about duration—replase prevention as a skill to practice for the rest of your life)
  • Chapter 5: Knowing When to Use Your Relapse Prevention Skills (anticipating the situations when you’re most likely to feel cravings)
  • Chapter 6: How to Get Back on Track If You Slip (what to do in case of error—a situation where you gave in to your cravings)

Bottom line: When you add the 6 elements, your instructions gain more force. They become a rich and reliable guide to actually doing something.

*Oops. He forgot to give the time. Giving instructions is hard.


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