"Don't do that."

"Do as I say."

These commands certainly catch our attention, but there's also something about them that makes us adults want to throw ourselves on the floor, kicking and screaming, "Just say no!"

We don't want to be treated like children anymore. (Even if we sometimes act that way ourselves, by kicking and screaming on the floor.)

After all, we didn’t struggle through all those years of school, work and the annoyances that come with day-to-day adult reality to be lectured to. We never liked to be ordered around, and our tolerance has declined as we get older. In fact, this resistance to rules is so strong that we bristle even when the tone of a communication reminds us of commands. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: "It is good to obey all the rules when you're young, so you'll have the strength to break them when you're old."

Since anything that resembles a rule is such a turn-off, it's surprising that so much of communication today has its origin in rules. Consider a sampling you may have seen recently:

  • An e-mail from the division president describing the new procedures you have to follow when you travel on business.
  • A letter from your health insurance company warning you about benefits changes.
  • Instructions on a web site, listing an array of caveats and clauses, explaining the company's refund policy.
  • A voicemail message from your mother nagging you about calling your brother for his birthday.

Although we rail against rules, the interesting thing about human beings is that we don't mind instructions, guidelines and (with the exception of guys who are lost while driving) directions. We're happy to accept guidance, if it helps us accomplish something that matters.

That's why "how to" is such a powerful phrase. And it's why a key way to get your audience's attention is to provide a "recipe:" helpful advice that makes at least one aspect of their lives easier. For examples of great recipes, see this recent column.

Note the difference:

  • A rule tells you something you must do, stated as a command. The body language that accompanies a rule is a wagging finger pointed at the offender.
  • A recipe helps you do something you want to do, expressed as a set of suggestions. The accompanying body language is a hand on your shoulder, offering encouragement.

In a world filled with rules, your audience doesn't need more procedures, regulations and admonitions. What people want most is a friendly helping hand to help them solve problems and get stuff done. If you provide that, you're sure to get and keep your audience's attention.