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People are terrible at following instructions

“Acacia Avenue? Yeah, mate. You wanna take the first right, go about 100 yards then …”


Save your breath. They’re nodding. They’re saying “yeah”. They’re mirroring all your hand gestures. But they’re not listening anymore.


I regularly design and run focus groups, with many different exercises. No matter how carefully, slowly and repeatedly I direct people, and however much they nod and say “yeah”, there’s always, always at least one person that does something entirely different. Often quite surprisingly different.


So what’s the problem?


Of course, sometimes the instructions are not quite precise enough













There’s the you-had-one-jobbers














And some people are just nature’s wet-paint-touchers













But there are a couple of other factors at play too:


1) We don’t listen to everything


One piece of research found: “the team of psychologists from the universities of Illinois and Florida have concluded that, while we now live and work in an environment filled with information, we filter out most of what we see and hear. People, they argued, tend to avoid information that contradicts what they already think or believe” So there’s confirmation bias, but also a tendency to decide what is being asked, possibly before you’ve heard all of it.


2) We’re not actually all that good at giving instructions


In a piece of research from the University of Freiburg. “They asked dozens of participants to plan, describe and walk routes through Freiburg. All those involved were highly familiar with the city. Asked to describe the shortest possible route between two city locations, and then asked to walk the shortest possible route between those same two points, not a single participant followed the path they’d actually described”


This has a big implication for internal communications. Far too many times organisations tell people once, and assume that everyone has heard them. It’s going to take repetition and different channels and executions to ensure that people have really heard you. And even before that, you need to very closely consider if you are accurately describing what you’d like really like people to do.


Communication is increasingly quick, but in lots of ways it’s getting harder. Consider your communications carefully.

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