How to give instructions

If you want to rise up in the business world, you will need to learn how to give instructions. No one will teach you this in school, either, and even people who have been working in business a long time never really learn how to do this properly.

Yet, it is, in my opinion, the single most important thing you will learn how to do in your business life.

If you want to be a manager, first learn how to manage yourself, and then lead others. Managers are made, not born.

And the first place to start managing others is by giving good instructions.

Why? Well, if you give bad instructions, the job will get messed up, and you will have to go back and fix the mess, which costs time and money, and negatively affects morale. People like to get things done right the first time, so they can get that feeling of satisfaction and move onto the next thing.

If you give good instructions, the job will get done right the first time and everyone will be happy. Happiness is good.

So how do you give good instructions?

First, you organize your own thoughts. This takes practice. Talk to yourself, if you need to. If it’s not organized in your own head, your instructions will be a mess, and the results will be very disappointing.

Second, write up the instructions as a series of steps.

Third, look at what you’ve done and make it better. Look at it with a critical eye. Move things around if you need to, or add a word here or there, or take things out that really don’t matter.

What doesn’t matter? Irrelevant information.

This is one of the mistakes that bad managers make. They don’t make a clear distinction between “thinking out loud” and “giving directions.”

So their workers are confused. Was that just a random thought, or a decision? Was that something he wants me to do, or is he just thinking about it? Do I have everything I need to get it done?

All discussions, in business, should go this way:

  1. Debate, discussion, thinking out loud, getting everyone’s viewpoint
  2. Summarizing what was said
  3. Coming to a conclusion about what was discussed and what could be done about it
  4. Making a decision
  5. Describing what should happen next, including who is going to “own” the activity, the deadline, the steps, and how the team is going to communicate with each other.

Tips to writing good instructions

Use “active voice.” This means that you should avoid “corporate speak,” which is vague and boring.

For example, the numbered list above is very active. Here’s what it would look like in passive, dry “corporate speak”:

  1. Participants should discuss options in a group setting, respecting all viewpoints and the basic rules of brainstorming (no judgement)
  2. The leader of the discussion should record the observations and points made in the discussion, creating a list of top points, and condensing this list into a brief summary
  3. The leader should then move into the conclusion phase, where the top problems are communicated and . . .

Are you asleep yet? I am. I’ll stop now. You get the idea. It’s too wordy, it’s too passive, it’s not alive, it’s not personal, it is not blunt.


Be brief, but thorough. That’s not a contradiction. If you are careful to include everything, but keep your words to the most essential, active voice, your instructions will be very clear.

Be direct. Don’t beat around the bush with a lot of talk “about” the topic. Just jump in and say what needs to be said.

Be courteous. If someone has done something well, and recognizing that is part of the instructions, make a point of saying it. People love to be recognized publicly for a job well done. By the same token, if someone has screwed up, don’t say that in front of everyone else. Take the person aside and talk about it separately.

Think about what the person will need to know, access, or possess in order to get the job done. Give them links or make it obvious where they will find what they need. A few minutes providing all elements will eliminate hours of confusion or wrongly done tasks later on.

Give them an easy way to ask questions, and respond as quickly as you can.

Start big and go smaller. In other words, if a husband says, “Honey, where’s the masking tape?” And she says, “It’s in the drawer.” That’s starting small, and it won’t be helpful; he’ll have to keep asking questions (“Which drawer? Which room?”). Instead, she should say, “It’s in the kitchen, in the drawer to the right of the stove, on the left side.”

In other words, State>City>Street>Number>House, which is much more effective than “Blue House>345>Maple Street>City>State.” Another way of thinking about this: Start at 35,000 feet, then go to 10,000 feet, then 10 feet, then 1 foot. All the smaller stuff makes more sense if the larger context is described first.

Good luck.



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