Directions matter: Tips for being clear

Things to consider when providing clear, concise directions.

Whether your baking cookies with your children, helping a friend learn to knit or directing an entire group in an activity, it is important to provide clear, concise directions. Giving directions is something we rarely think about until things go off course, someone is upset or we get results that are not exactly what we had in mind. We assume we can give directions as we go without planning or giving it much thought, but take a moment to consider these points. These tips can help you as a volunteer, employer, employee or parent.

It not always what you say but how you say it that matters. Consider the tone and pace of your voice when providing directions. An upbeat tone can go a long way and make even the tough part of a task seem easier. Speak calmly and at a pace that allows the participants to follow along with the instructions. Instructions can be difficult to understand if they are given in a quick, jumbled manner. You may even need to repeat the directions to help participants; hearing something a second or third time can provide confirmation or clarity.

Take it one step at a time. Try to provide one direction at a time, especially when steps may take time or be complex. This is also helpful when working with younger or older audiences. Be brief and specific in what you want them to do so they are not left guessing. It may be helpful to have a participant repeat or summarize the directions back so you can check for understanding. Sometimes we think our directions are clear, but we later find we have not communicated clearly.

Sometimes it is best to put it in writing, utilize a series of pictures, video, voice recording, text message or email so participants can refer back the directions as often as they need. This option allows for details to be shared in a way that visual learners can comprehend. This can be especially helpful when participants will be completing the tasks on their own and they cannot check in with you if they have a question.

When giving directions, avoid using the pronouns you and I; instead, try using pronouns like we, our and us. This can help those hearing your directions feel that you are all working together on a common goal. Using phrases like, “I want you to” and “I need you to” can sound directive and may trigger negative feelings in your audience. A non-directive command can move participants to take action with a smile. A few phrases you may want to include, “Let’s get the chairs in a circle” or “Our plates need to go to the sink when we are done.”

Consider your appearance, body language and attitude as you present directions to a group. Dress appropriately for what you are teaching if you are presenting to a group. Your audience will be watching and taking their ques from you. If you are positive, the chances of the group being successful are better. If you make the task sound boring, difficult and unimportant, chances are the participants will believe it to be true. So be sincere and consider asking others to only do things you would do yourself. As a leader, take the time to think through how you will provide direction; it can be difference between success and failure.

Looking for a place to share your skills and practice giving directions? Michigan State University Extension may have an opportunity for you to do just that, especially if you like working with young people and have a skill or hobby you would like to share. 4-H volunteers help young people learn a variety of skills through workshops, 4-H clubs, short-term experiences, camps and pre-college programs. These experiences vary in length and may last an hour or be ongoing allowing young people to develop their skills over several years.

The best thing about these programs and projects is that young people develop life skills that propel them forward in other areas of their life and help them explore career opportunities. Take some time to check out our 4-H programs, or connect with your local MSU Extension office for more details and to find out about opportunities in your community.

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