When you’re writing instructions, don’t be afraid of being bossy. The most effective instructions often use direct language and imperative verbs (verbs which give a command).
Do not smoke in the building.
Wash your hands after feeding the animals.
These instructions are clear and helpful. The language is direct, the tone is authoritative and the message is easy to follow.
You might be worried about sounding demanding or rude if you used commands like these in your writing. Perhaps you’d be more likely to write something like this:
Please try to avoid smoking in the building.
We recommend that you wash your hands after feeding the animals.
The tone here is certainly softer, but the message just isn’t as powerful.
Here’s why you should use the imperative:
1.) You’re the boss
If you (or your organisation) are giving instructions, take charge with your words. Your reader needs to hear what you’ve got to say and follow the directions you give them. They won’t be surprised when you tell them what to do (or what not to do).
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never say ‘please’. Use it sparingly though. You don’t want to sound as though you’re pleading with your reader.
For example, these instructions could do with being much more direct:
Please try to be considerate of other passengers on the bus wherever possible. We ask that you avoid putting your bags on the seats. If you could take all litter home with you, this would be greatly appreciated. We would like to advise you that the blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly.
In an effort to be polite, the writer has made these instructions very long-winded and rather feeble. They don’t sound like authoritative commands, just the vain wishes of a rather desperate bus driver.
Let’s see if we can make some improvements:
Please be considerate of other passengers on the bus. Do not put your bags on the seats. Take all litter home with you. The blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly.
2.) Direct instructions are safer instructions
Using direct commands usually makes your writing clearer. If you are giving your reader directions for their safety or wellbeing, don’t make them sound like mere suggestions. You don’t want your reader to treat them as optional.
If there is a fire, we recommend that you leave the building as soon as possible. You are advised to use the nearest fire exit. Please avoid taking any belongings with you.
Here, the writer sounds as though they’re afraid of sounding too bossy. In reality, the reader needs to be told with authority that they MUST leave the building in the event of a fire. In an attempt to sound polite, the writer has diluted the meaning and implied that leaving the building is only a ‘recommendation’. In this case, a more direct command is a safer choice:
If there is a fire, leave the building immediately. Use the nearest fire exit. Do not take anything with you.
Follow these simple tips and you’ll be giving instructions like a boss in no time.
Come back on Thursday to see this tip in action.
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