Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers to Learn a Process

RAILTRACK 4A (1)Many nonfiction books—including those in the vast self-help and business genres—are about helping people to learn. And learning boils down to enduring change in behavior. When we’ve learned something, in short, we are able to do or say something that we could not do or say previously.

What people want to learn varies widely, of course—anything from how to get firmer abs to how to meditate. In any case, our job is to write instructions that work and make a lasting difference in readers’ lives.

I’ve been writing instructions for 25 years. The main thing I’ve learned is that they are tricky, tricky, tricky. Instructions can engage readers—or quickly turn them off.

In order to succeed, distinguish between two different kinds of instructions:

  • Using a process (usually a step-by-step procedure) to produce a specific outcome
  • Using stories and structured experiences to gain insight that supports behavior change

In this post, I’ll focus on process instruction.

Three elements of process instruction

Process learning is what usually comes to mind when we think about “teaching” someone to do something. Process learning helps people understand how to complete a task or take a series of actions.

Process learning draws on traditional elements of instruction:

  1. State a rule or principle.
  2. Give an example of how to apply the rule or principle (and sometimes a non-example as well).
  3. Ask the reader to apply the rule and get immediate feedback.

An example of process instruction

Recipes offer common examples of process instructions. However, process instructions can apply to any aspect of human behavior.

Here’s an example from the work of psychologist B. J. Fogg on habit change. He teaches a course about making small changes in behavior—“baby steps,” or tiny habits—that cascade into larger changes over time.

More specifically, a tiny habit is a behavior that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Takes less than 30 seconds
  • Requires little effort
  • Is triggered by one of your current habits

The above bulleted list offers the first element of process instructions—the rule or principle.

B. J. also offers lots of examples of tiny habits, such as:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

The final element of process instructions—giving readers immediate feedback on performance—is challenging: We’re not physically present with our readers, so we cannot observe what they do. With written instructions, however, we can describe things that might go wrong when people apply a rule and then suggest solutions.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.