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Article: How to Give Better Instructions Related Resources

How to Give Better Instructions
by Wally Bock

If you're the boss, you have to give directions. It's part of the job.

Do the job well and you only have to do it once. Do the job poorly and you have to do it again. You might even have to fix things that have been done wrong. Here are three rules and twelve tips for giving good instructions.

First, here's a quick list of the three rules.

Rule 1: Give instructions in the ways that work best for your subordinate Rule 2: Give your directions in more than one way. Rule 3: Check for understanding

Now let's review the rules in detail.

Rule 1: Give instructions in the ways that work best for your subordinate. Different people process information in different ways. To be most effective, you need to master different ways of presenting instructions so you can choose and use the best way for each subordinate.

Psychologists tell us that there are three basic information processing modes. Visual processors think in pictures, while auditory ones think in sound and dialogue. Kinesthetic processors need motion and gesture to understand. Frame your instructions in language that matches your subordinate's preferred mode.

Use the language that your subordinate likes. Note the phrases they use to indicate things they approve of such as "That sounds good" or "It feels right" or "It makes sense." If you use familiar terms when giving instructions, your subordinates are more likely to get the message.

Some people prefer you to start with concrete examples and then move to a general principle. Others prefer you to start with the general principle and then provide examples.

If you are familiar with the people who work for you, you should learn about what's important to them and how they communicate. Use sports examples for sports lovers and cooking or gardening examples for people who enjoy those pastimes.

Rule 2: Give your directions in more than one way. Here are a few ways that work.

Use diagrams and pictures. These can be a great supplement to words alone.

Bulleted lists let people review a number of things quickly. If there's a priority or sequence to your instructions, use a numbered list.

Use "if-then" charts to help people understand options. List possible situations your subordinate might confront in the "If" column. Then, right next to it in the "Then" column list the response you expect.

If it's appropriate, act out your instructions or demonstrate. You may want your subordinate to shadow someone who is already good at the task.

Stories are the ways that human beings have made sense of complex issues since the dawn of language. Use stories to help you make your points.

Write important instructions down so your subordinate can carry them away and refer to them as needed. Lists and if-then charts are excellent for this.

Rule 3: Check for understanding. Stop from time to time and check to determine if your subordinate understands your message.

Stop if your subordinate gives signs of not understanding. Stop after each key point to check and see if he or she understands.

Have your subordinate demonstrate understanding in more than one way. Words alone are excellent. But demonstrations or "what-if" scenarios are excellent, too.

Note key trouble points that others have had with similar instructions. Check your subordinate's understanding of each.

This may seem like an elaborate way to complete the simple task of giving instructions, but the more you master the techniques and practice them, the more likely you are to succeed.

Wally Bock is an author, speaker and consultant who helps businesses improve morale and productivity. His latest book is Performance Talk: The One-on-One Part of Leadership.

Wally Bock may be contacted at or


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