As I assembled a new wardrobe last weekend in the spare-room-cum-study that is soon to be my daughter’s new bedroom, I was struck by just how simple yet effective the instructions were. Perhaps more striking was the fact that they didn’t contain a single word.
This might seem like the antithesis of what a technical writer – someone who develops written instructions for a living – would come to admire. But in truth, much of the art of technical writing is conveying the requirement to the reader in the most straightforward manner possible, using as few words as possible. Ikea is clearly the master of this approach, enabling it to sell the same item in any country around the world without having to translate the instructions each time.
Of course, it helps when the item in question is specifically designed with this approach in mind. Ikea cleverly employs different colours and numerical codes to help you distinguish between similar-looking screws, brackets and other parts. A magnified picture in the instructions shows a tick for the correct part to use, and a cross through the incorrect one.
It also helps if what you’re building can be put together with an allen key and a couple of screwdrivers. There’s a big difference between assembling a bureau and a battleship. But that doesn’t detract from the important lesson to be learnt here.
Advertisers and marketers understand that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and they harness the power of visuals to try to change what we buy – even how we think. In your own written communications, it is often worth asking, ‘Could I better convey this point visually rather than through words?’
You might just find that the right image can cut through in a way that a paragraph of text simply cannot. And of course, sometimes the reverse is true.