Many nonfiction books — including those in the vast self-help, business, and popular psychology 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 a job to how to meditate. In any case, our job is to write instructions that help people acquire they skills that they want.
Succeeding at this task means taking our readers on a journey through the full cycle of learning. It is not enough for them to cycle through a list of key points and ask them to regurgitate that material on a quiz or test. Instead, our job is to guide readers through a powerful set of new experiences that engages their capacities to not only think but also to feel and do.
We can do this by writing instructions with a predictable structure:
- Present a key point (an important concept or step in a process).
- Give examples of the key point — preferably through anecdotes and extended stories about people that readers can identify with.
- Suggest some way for readers to practice the key point by taking action on it in some way — for example, to perform a step in a process and get immediate feedback on their performance.
An Example of the Three-Part Structure
Consider the work of psychologist B. J. Fogg on habit change. He teaches a free email-based course about Tiny Habits — making small changes in behavior 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 list offers the first element of “how-to” instructions — the key points about Tiny Habits.
B. J. also offers many 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.
Finally, BJ offers suggestions for how to practice Tiny Habits. For example, choose behaviors that you really want to do — not behaviors that you merely think you should do. And immediately after designing Tiny Habits, rehearse them six to eight times to ensure that you can actually do the behaviors.
In an ideal world, subject matter experts such as BJ Fogg would be able to observe readers of their instructions and offer immediate feedback on their performance. But of course we’re not usually physically present with our readers as they practice, so we cannot observe what they do. With written instructions, however, we can describe things that might go wrong when people practice a principle and then suggest solutions.
How This Structure Helps People Learn
Three-part instructions are effective because they alternate between explaining how to do something and guiding people to discover why it’s worth doing in the first place.
These two elements — how and why — are equally important. The “how” dimension is all about guiding our readers to take action — to change what they do. Again, learning is often defined as a stable change in behavior.
At the same time, changes in behavior are inextricably linked to changes in attitudes (thinking) and emotional states (feeling). These are the twin poles of the “why” dimension. Our goal is to help readers shift both attitudes and emotions in ways that support behavior change rather than undermine it.
When we do both “how” and “why” effectively, readers are able to personalize our key points by actively experimenting with them and reflecting on the concrete experiences that they have. Three-part instructions engage readers:
- Intellectually, by stating key points
- Emotionally, with examples involving people that readers can identify with
- Behaviorally, through taking action on the key points
Said in another way, readers can take our instructions for behavior change and say:
- I understand what to say and do (key points).
- I’ve seen how other people like me use this process (examples).
- I’ve tested this process and discovered that it actually works for me (practice).