In my last post, I wrote about the power of "how to" to get your audience's attention. After all, people are drawn to helpful hints that make their lives easier.

But what happens when you need to go beyond straightforward advice--like "3 ways to save money on groceries"--and actually give instructions? Suddenly something simple becomes complicated. You thought you were telling someone how to make toast, and you find yourself having to explain how to prepare Eggs Benedict.

According to Richard Saul Wurman, a pioneer of information architecture (and founder of TED Talks, "Half of all our communication is the giving and receiving of instructions."

Since so much of communication is instructions, it should be easy, right? Actually, no, as anyone can attest who's ever tried to learn to knit, or assemble a piece of Swedish furniture, or fill out a tax return.

The fault in almost every case? The person giving instructions assumes knowledge the reader/listener just doesn't have. (The folks writing the IRS instructions for filling out Form 1040--the standard tax return--know what "adjusted gross income" means, but most mere mortals don't.)

In his book, Information Architecture 2, Wurman urges you to realize that "your peers, customers and prospects may not know what you know. Remember what it's like not to know? Try explaining to someone how to walk or how to tie your shoes. Once you know how to do something and understand how something works, it's almost impossible to put yourself in the place of the person who doesn't know."

That's why effective instructions need to be developed without a single assumption about the audience's knowledge or ability. Yes, our audience is smart, but we must pretend that they've just been beamed onto the planet and have never seen a knitting needle, or an Allen wrench, or an IRS agent who can explain exactly what adjusted gross income means.

The best instructions start from scratch, like a completely empty page, and illustrate and explain absolutely everything.

Luckily, another Wurman book, Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Learning to Give, Take, and Use Instructions, provides great instructions for creating instructions.

Wurman's formula is simple and effective. All instructions should have the following six components:

  1. Mission.  The purpose or aim of the instruction
  2. Destination.  The end result
  3. Procedure.  The specific directions
  4. Time.  Amount of time it will take to complete the process
  5. Anticipation.  Things you should expect along the way
  6. Failure.  How to know if something went wrong

"The same building blocks can be used to compose wildly diverse instructions," writes Wurman, from "telling someone to fly a kite, program a VCR or develop a business plan."

See how easy instructions can be?