Every form of communication can benefit from show-don’t-tell writing. Sure, this style can improve storytelling and foster audience engagement — but it’s also a powerful tool when providing instructions. And when managing efficient operations, clear instructions are a must!
Whether in a technical document or an informal email, instructions that are easy to understand and follow with concrete examples can create credibility and connection. When instructions don’t clearly show how to complete tasks correctly, the audience may not know what you need them to do. If confused readers act without asking for clarification, they can be frustrated and inefficient — and make costly mistakes.
Creating Show vs. Tell Instructions
Tell: Lots of words, little clarity
Imagine you received the following instructions for an expense report. Based on the words given, would you know what to do?
Directions for Employee Expense Spreadsheet
- The sheet labeled “expenses” is where you should be putting in your information.
- Select your name from across the top.
- List under your name what the expense was and add the date.
- Place an “x” down the column to indicate if someone else shared the expense.
- The bottom of the column has a “total price” where you will put how much the expense was.
- Please do not touch any of the other cells in the excel sheet. That is all formulas.
In this example, the creator assumes that the reader will understand how to fill in the spreadsheet. However, a lot of information is missing or confusing:
- Where do I find the spreadsheet?
- Does each traveler complete a separate form?
- Where do I select name?
- How do I add other traveler’s names?
Without clear, complete instructions that show what information you need, your audiences may misunderstand how to act.
If you provide an example and include clear instructions, readers can complete the task correctly and easily — the first time.
Show: Examples drive understanding
Sometimes, even clear language is not enough. Adding a properly completed visual is a great way to show your audiences what to do, rather than hoping they understand what you’re telling them.
Here’s another way to share necessary action steps, using a “show” approach:
|Online Expense Worksheet Instructions
The entries below are examples.
The Team Leader must complete a separate report for each trip.
|For each expense, in a blank column, select your name from the drop down list||John Smith||John Smith||John Smith||John Smith|
|Label the expense and include the date(s).
If the expense benefitted another person, add the name below and put an “X” in the column for that expense.
|Car Rental 10/1/17-10/4-17||Airport Parking 10/4/17||Lunch 10/3/17||Dinner 10/3/17|
|Enter the Total expense amount.
DO NOT adujst the cost per person.
The spreadsheet automatically calculates the per person cost.
|Per Person Price||$ 105.45||$ 28.00||$ 22.84||$ 37.48|
No matter your audience or your call-to-action, a carefully designed and constructed message makes correctly completing tasks easier. Showing readers the necessary steps may require a bit more time on the front end. But, imagine all of the time (and frustration!) you can save when you don’t have to clarify your intentions — or get stuck in the dreaded email back-and-forth! With concrete, specific information, you can provide the clarity your audience seeks.
If you’d like assistance with clarifying your corporate instructions, we’re always happy to help.