Coronavirus – When Clear Instructions Save Lives

As the coronavirus crisis escalates, informing and instructing the public is critical to managing the situation effectively.

While governments are getting better at communicating on this front as their grasp of the situation improves, not all official instructions have been effective.

This is a good demonstration of the importance of clear instructions, particularly when it comes to public safety.

Providing clear instructions

Instructions are only effective if they are understood correctly. When you want people to do something, use clear language.

Over the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen people told to self-isolate or practice social distancing. For example, take a look at this graphic from the Sun:

Terms like ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are useful for describing sets of helpful behaviours. However, they’re not very useful as instructions. This is because they are:

  • Unfamiliar – people don’t already understand them
  • Broad – they cover a range of behaviours and not everyone will define them in the same way
  • Abstract – they rely on people understanding a concept and then applying it

Compare this to the following instructions from the NHS and government:

In contrast, these instructions are:

  • Familiar – they only use words that everyone understands
  • Specific – they tell you exactly what they want you to do and why*
  • Concrete – the instructions are literal and require very little interpretation

* Although they could have made the first example even more specific by swapping ‘high temperature’ for something measurable like ‘a temperature of 38 degrees or above’.

A similar thing can be said about giving instructions that feel optional. While the statements on Boris Johnson’s twitter account are generally pitched about right, take a look at this one:

Phrases like ‘as far as possible’ and ‘we want you to’ make their recommendation (to stay at home) feel much less important than if they had just said ‘stay at home except for essential trips’.

Hopefully you’ll never have to organise the response to a pandemic, but even so there are valuable lessons here:

  1. Give simple, concrete instructions in language that is familiar to your audience.
  2. Don’t phrase important instructions in a way that makes them feel optional.