Writing Instructions That Lead to Action

In 2005 I attended the Landmark Forum, where I was instructed to “access transformation” as the “genesis of a new realm of possibility.”

I was inspired by the Forum and have posted about it several times. Yet with a decade of perspective, I still scratch my head and wonder what it means to “access transformation” on a daily basis.

Turns out that there’s a difference between inspiration and instructions.

Inspiration can be useful. It can even trigger profound behavior change. But for readers of who are hurried and hassled, inspiration is often fleeting.

Think in terms of next actions

As an alternative, I turn to the concept of next actions as defined in the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. Next actions are physical and visible behaviors. They describe specific and concrete ways to move your legs, arms, and mouth.

Access transformation is inspiration.

Take three mindful breaths is a next action.

Stay active is inspiration.

Do two pushups is a next action.

Next actions are the core of good instructions. They give readers something to actually do while waiting for inspiration to strike.

Following are ways to present next actions to readers.

Write effective lists

Completing a project often involves more than one action. When that’s true, present your next actions in a list. If you want readers to perform those actions in a specific order, then write a numbered list. If order does not matter, then write a bulleted list.

In addition, divide big projects into a series of sub-projects, each with its own list of actions.

Begin each list item with an active verb. Pack an apple in your lunch is more clear and direct than An apple should be packed in your lunch. The latter is an example of passive voice, which obscures who should take action.

For more on lists, see Instructions: How to Write Guides for Busy, Grouchy People.

Offer scripts

We can often help readers by suggesting specific things for them to to say. One master of the script is Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Following is an example from Ramit’s instructions for asking a credit card company to cancel a late fee:

You: Hi, I noticed I missed a payment, and I wanted to confirm that this won’t affect my credit score.

Credit Card rep: Let me check on that. No, the late fee will be applied, but it won’t affect your credit score….

You: Thank you! I’m really happy to hear that. Now, about that fee … I understand I was late, but I’d like to have it waived.

Test instructions with real people

Whenever possible, give a draft of your book manuscript to potential readers and ask them to actually carry out your instructions. Observe what they do. Also ask them to talk about any confusions. I’ve found this to be humbling — and revealing.

If you’re pressed for time or don’t have access to readers, then simply read your lists of instructions and ask: Could I actually see myself doing this? If the answer is no, then you have inspiration to create better instructions.