Have you ever provided written instructions or issued policies that seemed clear enough in your mind, but people were not responding as if they understood you?
You're not alone!
My sister once had a classmate who regularly brushed her teeth with a powdered bleach cleanser that was intended for surfaces like porcelain and ceramic—e.g., bathtubs and sinks—not tooth enamel. Possibly to get attention, the teenaged girl loved flashing her bright smile while bragging about her high-powered, homemade toothpaste.
The girl’s peers, including my sister, were not impressed. They warned her about ruining those pearly whites and poisoning her body. She disregarded them and the manufacturer’s alert to drink gallons of water and seek emergency medical assistance if someone swallowed any bleach. Instead, the misguided teen argued that never brush your teeth with this product was nowhere on the label. (Hopefully, she came to her senses and is alive and well to this day.)
Drafting Instructions and Policies
For all the reasons that people subconsciously and inadvertently misinterpret instructions and policies, setting the right tone and choosing appropriate language are essential.
Consider the following guidelines to achieve maximal understanding and compliance:
Do’s and Don’ts
Strive to highlight what people should do or what is possible. Grabbing only key words, readers often scan content and overlook the not and contractions like don’t, can’t, won’t, etc. As a result, they mentally process and/or do the opposite of what the notification or direction says.
Clear: Plant the seeds in beds that receive 6 to 8 hours of full sun.
Complicated: Do not plant the seeds in beds that receive less than 6 to 8 hours of full sun.
Clear: Bring your own snack.
Complicated: Do not forget to bring your own snack.
Use positive references to maintain an upbeat tone, offer encouragement, or convey confidence. Positively stated guidelines generally leave more favorable impressions and more readily garner compliance.
Positive: We grant a full refund for any merchandise returned within 30 days of purchase.
Negative: We allow no refunds for merchandise returned after 30 days.
Positive: Our senior living facility encourages visitors between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
Negative: Our senior living facility discourages visitors before 9:00 a.m. and after 6:00 p.m.
Whys and Why-Nots
Explain why or why not if extra insights or details compel people to follow directions and/or appreciate the reason for the policy.
Policy: No Wading or Swimming in Lake
Why Not (this is compelling): Dangerous Alligators in Lake
Avoid wasting your readers’ time with information that’s irrelevant to them. Also, omit justifications that merely weaken the policy.
Policy: Term papers are due on Monday at noon.
Why (this is unnecessary): I need two weeks to read and grade all your papers before the end of the semester.
Demands and Requests
When appropriate, use please instead of must to set a cordial tone. People tend to react more favorably to a requirement that seems like a request.
Request (respectful and effective): Please submit your payment as follows.
Demand (unnecessarily forceful): You must submit your payment as follows.
Stick with must if a forceful statement is necessary or any hint of a request is inappropriate. Use simple language to minimize doubt.
Request (weak): Please wear gloves to bottle-feed the rescued kittens.
Demand (strong): You must wear gloves to bottle-feed the rescued kittens.
Request (weak): You should not bring food or drink in this room.
Demand (strong): Food and drink are forbidden in this room.
When possible, soften the blow with words like please and thank you.
Respectful: Sales of red-ticketed items are final. Thank you for buying our bargains!
Respectful: Please choose your treasures carefully. Sales are final for red-ticketed items.
Demanding: No Returns, No Refunds, No Exchanges on Sales of Red-Ticketed Items
Communicating with a broad audience can pose the greatest challenge of composing effective instructions and policies. One solution might be a unique version for each different segment. Another option is to lead with broad statements and supplement with details. The additional content could either serve those who have a greater aptitude for the subject matter or people who need more information to grasp the basics. Before publishing, consider sampling individuals or groups for input and adjust your message accordingly.
No matter what, never brush your teeth with household bleach!
My best to you,
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady
Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at https://WriteLady.com.