Another Printing Disasters—and How to Avoid Them story…

I think I’m pretty good at writing instructions. Not long ago when I ordered some items online, I wrote these:

Seems simple, right? But here’s what the shipper wrote on the carton:

Ha ha! Not exactly what I thought I had asked for (but admittedly, it was BIG).

As I recycled the box, I mused about how easy it is to think we’re giving clear instructions when, really, we’re not. And in this electronic era when people communicate face-to-face or voice-to-voice much less often, more weight than ever falls on clearly asking in writing for what we want.

As easy as making a peanut butter sandwich

Most of us think we’re great communicators. My management training consultant friend, Louise, disproves this erroneous assumption to her classes by having one of her manager-students give step-by-step instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich.

Louise grabs a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a knife, and proceeds to follow the student’s instructions to the letter.

When he says, “Stick the knife into the jar,” she bonks the knife against the closed lid a few times. The class giggles and he begins again with, “Take the lid off the jar of peanut butter” and, “Open the bread bag and remove two slices from the bag.” So far, so good.

Then he instructs, “Spread peanut butter on one side of bread,” and Louise very slowly and carefully spreads peanut butter along the crust edge of the slice! The class howls with laughter, but everyone gets the point. It’s harder than we think to communicate what we want someone else to do.

Disaster Avoidance Tips

Here are a few tricks I use when writing instructions in print specifications:

  • Ask yourself who will be reading the instructions. Avoid jargon if the reader won’t know what you’re talking about. Is English his first language? (Something tells me it wasn’t Ms. Big’s!)
  • Visualize the necessary steps involved.
  • Write the steps down in process order. As I write, I find it helpful to think to myself, “First do this, then do that.” For example, “Package and trim to size” doesn’t make as much sense as, “Trim business cards to size, then package in 250-count boxes.”
  • Walk away from what you’ve written for a few minutes. After a little break, you will often catch an error or see a way to simplify what you wrote.
  • If possible, walk through the instructions with the intended reader and clarify any point that needs it. If he doesn’t think they are clear, they’re not!

Do you have an example of instructions gone astray in a big or small way? Please share it by leaving a comment.

© 2011 Nani Paape