Is it a lever, a button, a knob, a handle, a toggle, or a switch? Do you pull it; push it; press it; activate it? Does it matter? When I was editing an instruction manual, I found all these terms: turn the knob, activate the switch, pull the lever, and flip the toggle. In an attempt to be even more creative, the writer then instructed the reader to “push the handle.” Facing a control panel with multiple buttons, I was confused. No doubt, a first-time operator would be looking for six different locations to perform each of these tasks. I talked to the equipment designer and determined that each of these instructions referred to the identical action using the same switch.
Consistency is essential to writing clear instructions. You just confuse the issue by changing the words. Sometimes we are just not aware that we are creating the confusion. The instruction may have been clear to the designer but an operator would have been stymied! Here are some suggestions for improving instruction manuals. These principles have broader applications too. Keep them in mind for product literature, sales presentations and web content.
Set up a naming system. For technical products, it is a common practice to establish nomenclature for the product. This is simply a system of assigning names. Manuals often include a diagram or schematic that illustrates each component of the machine. Once you have a list of names and definitions, then it’s essential to use the names consistently. This is not the time to get creative. Repetition is important. Use the same set of words to describe the same action, every time.
Translators who work on your instructions will thank you for your consistent use of the vocabulary.
Writing a style guide or glossary of terms can provide a useful foundation for branding your marketing material and website content. By using this tool, you can ensure that you present your products and services in a consistent way so that your customers learn to use your branding style and vocabulary. The same terminology should be used in your spec sheets and your sales presentations to reinforce your brand. Ensure that everyone in your organization refers to the product by its appropriate and approved name.
Use the active voice. This is especially important for instruction manuals and is a key feature of successful business writing.
Instructions tell the operator what to do. “The switch should then be activated” uses the passive voice and uses 35 characters. It is weak, indirect and uses more words than necessary.
“Turn on the switch,” uses the active voice. It is more direct and compelling and uses only 18 characters.
Put first things first. On this same project, there was a list of eight sequential instructions. This is the way it should be. Each action logically follows in sequence from beginning to end. But wait a minute, at the very end of the list it says, “Before you start Step 1, ensure that you …” To avoid confusion, and in some cases serious injury put first things first. It is unrealistic to expect the operator to read all the instructions before he starts Step 1.
Know your audience
When you have a really clear picture of your customer, end user, or reader you will know the words and phrases that your audience will understand.
Your message needs to be concise and easy to understand. While this is important for instruction manuals, it is especially true for web content. Headlines and bulleted lists are the essential way to deliver content. Similar guidelines hold true for brochures, technical literature, white papers and instruction manuals. Forget about the technogab and make it clear, concise and consistent.
How do you prepare instructions? What format works for you?