How to write effective and clear instructions

In psychology there’s a concept called System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the innate or automated thinking that we process without effort. System 2, on the other hand, represents the facet of mental processing that requires conscious reasoning or contemplation. 

Now, what does this have to do with words, you ask? Potentially, quite a lot. When our brain functions in System 2, there are certain things that can aid our mental processing – things like words. If we are given clear or effective instructions when approaching an unfamiliar task, the amount of effort required by the individual significantly drops. Luckily, there are linguistic techniques that can be utilized to increase the clarity and comprehension of any set of instructions.

Simple yet specific

This one might not come as a surprise, but it’s crucial to keep instructional writing simple – in terms of both word choice and sentence structure. Avoid unnecessary technical jargon, but if it’s a critical component, provide a definition or description of the word. 

Use short sentences and paragraphs. Say one thing in each sentence. See what I did there? One trick to clear instructions is to avoid the use of conjunctions like and or but. If you’re combining two thoughts with a conjunction, it might be more effective to use separate sentences. 

We also suggest leading each sentence with the most important message. This can be achieved using active voice, in which the subject acts upon the verb. In passive voice, the subject follows the verb, which can make the statement wordy and unclear. For example, instead of writing “The dog was petted by Sam,” use “Sam petted the dog.” It uses fewer words and positions the most important word up front.

Linguistic tools

Clear instructions utilize the imperative mood, which conveys a command or request. The three major moods used in the english language are imperative, indicative and subjunctive. The latter two express factual statements and hypotheticals/wishes, respectively. Opting for imperative aids in the instructional tone of voice required to lead someone through the process of learning a new board game or resetting their wifi router. An example of imperative mood would be “Press the red button.”

Most instructions direct you to perform some sort of physical task, which requires the use of descriptive words and visual writing. Using visually stimulating verbs in favor of general descriptors creates better imagery. Instead of the word look, try stare or peer. Don’t just walk, stroll or trek. 

Don’t forget to employ this same technique with nouns so the reader knows exactly which button to press or part to replace. Describe the shape, color, size, placement, etc. to help break down the appearance of each component. If a concept or direction still feels complex, provide a relevant example to help the reader understand the instruction within a real world context. 

Logical structure

To achieve clear instructions, develop a procedure and structure your text in logical order. A task or number of tasks can sit within a single procedure. Determine the number of tasks in a way that keeps the length un-intimidating but does not cloud or exclude instructions. There can also be steps within a single task, but going any deeper can lead to confusion.

Bolding or italicizing important information can help emphasize a point without adding words – just be sure to do so sparingly. If used in excess, bolding can lose its significance. White space can also be used to create a more visually interesting and dynamic layout.

Utilize a combination of headings, bulleted lists and visual diagrams to keep the structure varied and provide a logical path for the eyes. Lists are a great way to keep instructions succinct because you can incorporate clauses or partial sentences. They can also be used to list necessary tools, equipment or anything else required from the reader.

Understand the reader

Before you begin to write anything, you need to know your audience. Is this a product for children? Astrophysicists? The average Joe? That understanding will shape the words you use and level of description needed to create intelligible or clear instructions. Everyone is working with a different set of experiences and knowledge that will impact how they understand the text. But if you can characterize your potential audience by attributes like level of education or age, you can make accurate linguistic generalizations.

Relative Insight can help you break down your audience by demographic to discover what makes each segment unique – but we can also group them all together to discover consistent themes across the entire audience.

Our natural language processing technology uses text analysis to reveal the words, phrases, grammar, topic and emotion used by an audience in comparison to another. This insight gives you the ability to speak the language of your specific reader, using the exact words they would choose themselves. This personalized communication strategy is perhaps the most effective way to develop comprehensible instructions. 

Know your audience with Relative Insight