Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em

Did you ever get frustrated trying to find directions to a certain place? 

A few weeks ago, I was looking for directions to a business location. Going to their web site, I reviewed the directions it gave. I read through about five or six lines that told me to take this road or that road, make a left turn or right turn. Getting to the end, I finally learned where the business was located: a shopping center less than 10 minutes from my home, and one I visit frequently. In annoyance, I asked myself, "Why didn't they just say so?"

I don't know if that business will ever change the the way they give directions, but there's a lesson here for us, in giving instructions to callers. Instead of starting with the step by step directions (as the business did), consider telling them what you're going to be doing, THEN (if necessary) giving the details. By giving them the big picture first, you might eliminate the need for them to go further. Public speakers have a saying about this idea: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em."

If I had designed that business's web site, here's the first thing I would have said:

"Our office is in the middle of the parking lot of the XYZ Shopping Center, at the corner of Routes 123 and 28." 

Having seen this sentence, web visitors familiar with the area might need nothing more, thus saving themselves time.

Suppose, in your case, you have a caller who has an internet connectivity problem. Yes, you could say to the person, "Please do the following:  click on "start", then highlight and release on "all programs," then highlight "accessories," then highlight 'Command prompt.'  Now, in the box of the command prompt, type 'ipconfig /all'."

That's fine if you have a less-computer-literate caller. What if, though, that caller already knew this command? He or she might be irritated at these directions.

What if, instead, you said the following:

"We need to figure out what's going on with your computer. To do that, we need to run the 'ipconfig' command, and display everything we can. If that command is unfamiliar, I'd be happy to step you through it."  Having heard these words, the less-literate caller might say, "Oh, I don't know how to do that, can you help me?" The more adept caller might say, in contrast, "Oh yes, so does that mean I use 'slash-all' as the switch?" or even "OK, I'll run it and tell you what it tells me."

By giving directions this way, you accommodate the less-skilled caller. More importantly, you show respect for the more-skilled caller.

Do you have specific questions or issues you'd like me to discuss at this blog? Let me know at Be aware that I use, so you may get a "challenge message" in response. 


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

Jeff Dray
Jeff Dray

In the UK everyone gives directions by pub names. They never know the name of the roads, just the names of the pub, for example, "turn left at the end of the road, just past the Red Lion turn into the little road, can't remember the name but the Royal Oak is halfway down on the left. Go straight down and take a right by the Mason's Arms. This is fine,except for the annoying habit that brewery chains have of changing the names of pubs. The Red Lion was called the Red Lion for 500 years but some marketing jerk renamed it "The Slug and Lettuce" in 1985. Everyone locally still cals it the Red Lion so that leaves the stranger in town up a creek.

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