Directions that Discourage

twisted_directions We saw the results of a fascinating study over at Medical News Today. The researchers tested how the directions about a task affect the perception of the task itself. They started by trying to motivate college students to exercise.

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They gave the students directions on how to implement an exercise program. Half of the students got directions in an easy-to-read Arial font. The other half received the same directions in a Brush font (think paint brush), which is difficult to read.

Then the researchers asked these students:

  • to estimate how long the exercise routine would take
  • how easy it would be
  • if they would make it part of their regular routine

The “Arial” group thought that it would take less time and be easier than the “Brush” group, who also was less likely to make it a part of their daily ritual.

It’s amazing how something as simple as the font we choose could make so much difference. Just to be sure their results weren’t skewed by the students’ preconceived notions about exercise, the researchers performed a similar experiment with a recipe for sushi.

The outcome was similar. They concluded that if instructions are easier to read, people respond positively.

Enough about fonts, let’s put all the pieces together

We need to think about the directions we give to make sure they’re not discouraging our people. We don’t want to make a simple task sound complicated by our directions. Since people equate the ease of a given task to the ease of the directions about that task, we need to think about our:

  • Message
    Be sure you’re clear in what you’re saying. Also be concise. Eliminate the fluff. Focus on writing high-impact copy.
  • Design
    Obviously, the font you use plays a role. So does      white  space     . Graphical elements are always good. You should also use headers and bullet points when possible to make your directions easier to digest.
  • Words
    Sixteen-syllable words don’t impress many people; they have the opposite affect on far more. Jargon doesn’t help either. Use words that your audience will easily understand.

Look at the following two sentences:

You’ll save money if you buy gas today.

Buying gas today could be economically advantageous.

Which one conveys the message better to you? Which words do you like? Which structure if preferable?

We often make the mistake of thinking “fancy” words said in our passive voice make us sound smarter or more professional. Usually it’s the opposite. We’re deemed smart when we connect with the audience we’re trying to reach.                

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