Let’s get serious about directions and instructions

The man on the corner says, “Straight ahead for three blocks. Then turn left. You’ll drive about four blocks and the store will be on the right. Big red sign. You can’t miss it. But if you pass the Sunoco Station, you’ve gone too far.”

We’ve all been recipients of directions like that. It lays everything out in a very logical, foolproof sequence and then provides you with a landmark that you don’t really need – the one that tells you you’ve gone too far. While it’s useful to know you’ve passed your destination, knowing that you’ve passed it doesn’t help you find it.

No, I’m not sitting here with too much time on my hands today. It’s just one of those days in which the quirks of how people communicate with each other (spoken or written) really bugs me.

Here’s another that drives me up a wall. I like to assemble things. So let’s put assembly instructions into this same communication abyss. “Connect the two pieces with the bolt, washer, and nut provided.” Easy, right? So I do that. Bolt, washer, nut… two pieces are connected. And I make sure they’re tight. I wouldn’t want them to come apart – ever!

Then comes the next instruction. “But before you tighten it all the way…” Grrrrr. It’s so illogical. Why not tell me ahead of time… or at least give me a warning.

Now, I don’t want the job of going around editing and rewriting directions or instructions in an attempt to add clarity. That’d be a big job. And I’ll do it if I have to… and if no one else does. But I think it’s something that we each need to be conscious of and take responsibility for when it comes to communication.

Okay, here’s another. We received new credit cards in the mail today to replace the ones that expire at the end of the month. You’ve seen how these arrive… with the sticker that says, “Call or go online to activate this card.”

Each of the cards has a different account number – or at least the last 4 digits are different.

But even worse than communication containing poor instructions is the lack of any instruction.

I looked everywhere. Nowhere in the instructions (or lack of instructions) from one of the really big banks did it tell me that activating one card would automatically activate the other. Nor did it tell me that I needed to activate them individually. And I didn’t want to activate one without activating the other and stand the risk of one of the cards not working if and when we needed it.

So I called the bank. After listening to all the instructions and pressing a few buttons, I finally reached a customer service representative. Well, she didn’t know for sure. So she looked up the account and was able to ascertain that they were both activated. Total elapsed time (not including activating my card and writing this blog post) was at least 14 minutes.

I don’t know if the people who write directions or instructions are just so familiar with what they’re doing that they take for granted that I’ll understand it, too.

As a writer and author (and creator of a private marketing writing coaching program), it just concerns me. As the world becomes more complicated, I wonder what has to happen in order for people to communicate more clearly and logically. Perhaps I should write instructions for how to do that.


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