“What does that mean?”
That is not a question you want to ask yourself when reading how-to instructions. The importance of writing clear instructions cannot be undervalued.
Yet, I find I am asking that all too often. Beyond IKEA instructions where I pay more attention to the pictures and diagrams, these are instructions from large corporations and higher learning institutions. I don’t like to make assumptions and I don’t usually hesitate to ask for clarification. However, sometimes I read something that seems very straight-forward and I feel I completely understand, only to realize I have led myself into assuming certain facts that weren’t really there.
A few times in the last 12 months, I have been caught with expectations that were not intended by the person who wrote them. Did I misunderstand? Absolutely! Why did I misunderstand? Because there were things the author didn’t consider.
There are many ways to interpret information and realizing that makes your writing much clearer.
In one incident this year, I stated to the source of the instructions that I didn’t believe the written instructions explained the intent clearly. I received the WORST ANSWER EVER. He said, “Yes, it’s clear. I wrote it.”
He may value the importance of writing clear instructions, but he was too arrogant to admit there might have been at least one other way to read the information. His response was only to defend his work instead of listening to my side of things. He forgot completely, that his job was to communicate with me, the customer. Fail! I don’t care if he thinks I am a total idiot, it wouldn’t kill him to say, “I’m sorry.” It was COVID-19 related, so perhaps that language will never be used again.
When I teach workshops on communication skills, I love to show the group this statement to demonstrate there are many ways to interpret a sentence even when punctuated correctly. The winning ambiguous statement is:
He fed her cat food.
It’s grammatically correct, but what does that mean? Did he give the woman some Friskies Buffet, or did he feed food to her pet cat? If you think this statement is perfectly clear, guess again! There’s a total idiot out there who doesn’t think exactly like you.
Read 3 Tips for Writing Instructions to help you make things more clear for your audience.
Leslie A.M. Smith founded McCormick L.A. in 1994 offering public relations and marketing consulting to nonprofits and small businesses. She recently published Laws of Promotion. The 50-page promotional guide for small businesses and local nonprofits is available now on Amazon.