Marketing from the Grocery Aisles: Instructions Not so Easy

For the past few months, I’ve been immersed in writing instructional videos and accompanying cards and training decks. Having never used the product, for which I’m writing the materials, I simultaneously learned how to use it while writing the content.

In the past, I’ve written a couple of users guides, a large manual (took several months), and many web pages, which contained “how to” instructions. While not a training materials specialist, I have enough experience to clearly write, and effectively convey the necessary steps to get a reader (or listener) from point “A” to point “B,” and beyond.

The back-and-forth of the project — with a key stakeholder wanting to use the exact language in published materials –has resulted in sound tracks and printed materials that are stilted, and probably won’t achieve the objectives of clearly presenting the fundamentals of the product, and also creating excitement around its innovative features.

The scripts ended up being written to achieve her goals, not to meet customers’ needs.

During the course of the project, I’ve given considerable thought to the science (and it is a science) of writing instructions. To gain some perspective, I turned to the grocery store, and the simplicity of canned soup. After all, how hard could it be to write the instructions for heating soup?

I grew up on Campbell’s condensed soups. Open the can. Plop contents into a pot. Add a can of water (no need for a measuring cup). Turn on the stove. Heat. Eat. Done.

Maybe not.

I randomly selected four cans of soup from my cupboard. I love to buy soup. The labels make them so appealing; although, I’m usually disappointed by the taste. But, that’s another story. Here are the heating instructions for the soups:

New England Clam Chowder
(national brand #1)

Tomato
(store brand)

Chicken Pot Pie (national brand #2)

Cream of Mushroom (store brand)

Directions

Preparation Instructions

Serving Instructions

Heating Directions

Do not add water

 

Mix soup with one can of water or milk if preferred

Do Not Add Water

Stove

Heat stirring occasionally. Enjoy.

Stove Top

Empty soup into pan. Slowly stir in one can of water or milk. Heat, stirring often. DO NOT BOIL

Stove Top

Heat until simmering while stirring.

Stove Top

Heat over medium heat in saucepan until hot, stirring occasionally.

Microwave

1. HEAT covered in medium microwave bowl on HIGH 3 to 3 ½ minutes;

2. Careful LEAVE in microwave 1 min.

3. STIR and enjoy.

Microwave

Empty contents of can into a microwave-safe bowl. Add one can of water or milk. Cover. Microwave on HIGH 2 to 4 minutes or until hot. Stirring once. Let stand in microwave for 1 minute.

Microwave

Place contents into microwave-safe container. Cover and heat on high about 3 minutes or until hot. Stir and serve.

Microwave

Microwave in covered microwave-safe container on HIGH power 2 minutes or until hot. Let stand for 1 minute in microwave. Stir before serving.

Caution: Metal edges are sharp.

Caution: Product and container will be hot. Use potholders to avoid injury. Promptly refrigerate any unused portion in a separate container.

Caution: Product and container will be hot. Use potholders and handle carefully to avoid burns. Refrigerate in separate container any unused portion.

[none]

Straight-out-of-the-gate, there a difference in what you’re supposed to do: Prepare (preparation), serve (serving) or heat (heating).

Two of the cans have “directions,” and two have “instructions.” If you look at the verbs, you more accurately prepare rather than direct or instruct soup. And while you ultimately serve the soup, you should start by heating it.

Two of the cans initially instruct soup-preparers not to add water. For people like me, who think all canned soup is condensed, this is a good to know. Although, since I don’t bother to read instructions, it’s likely I’ll dilute the soup out of habit, probably with water.

Let’s begin the soup-making.

The instructions for the tomato soup start by saying you can thin with water or milk. The microwave instructions says use a microwave-safe container. What about the stove? Do you pour the can of soup and the can of water or milk on the stove, and then simmer while stirring? The microwave instructions give it a good stir, and then let it stand in the microwave for a minute before serving. What happens if you let the soup sit, instead of stand?

Should the soup stand, sit or recline on the stove? It doesn’t tell you to use a pot on the stove, so the soup probably ends up sprawled across the stove.

The instructions for heating the Chicken Pot Pie soup is similar; although they’re more thorough, explaining a saucepan should be used on the stovetop, a covered microwave-safe container should be chosen for the microwavecampbells_flag. And like the tomato soup, the chicken pot pie soup should stand, rather than sit or lounge for a minute before stirring, and serving. 

The can of New England Clam Chowder thoughtfully recommends “enjoy,” whether heated on the stove or microwave. While the preparation on the stove consists of only “Heat stirring, occasionally,” three steps are outlined for the microwave preparation, including “Careful LEAVE in microwave 1 min.” I wonder why the writer felt it was better to abbreviate “minute” rather than add three extra characters, “te.”

I’m not a fan of abbreviations. By using the entire word – minute – you avoid confusing “min.” with other words like “minimum,” “mint,” and “

I’m not sure what action I should take when I read “Careful LEAVE.” If I’m leaving the bowl in the microwave, should I be careful as I wait out the prescribed minute? Perhaps, I should pull up a chair while waiting? And for the next step of “STIR and enjoy,” do I stir the bowl while it’s in the microwave or remove it? And how careful do I need to be during the stirring step?

The cautionary notes come in two flavors: Sharp edges and hot soup. The writer for the can of clam chowder waited to warn about sharp edges until the can of soup had been opened, poured into a container, heated, and served. No doubt, a company lawyer played a role in adding this disclaimer.

The cream of mushroom soups has similar warnings; although, it recommends potholders to avoid injury, and goes into details about how to store leftover soup. The tomato soup, the same store brand, expresses concern over burns, which may or may not be less grievous than the “injury” that could be inflicted by handling the cream of mushroom soup without pot holders.

What’s the lesson? If you’re going to provide instructions make sure the language is clear, concise, thorough, and focuses on what you want the users to do. If I were to write the instructions for a can of soup, they’d be as follows:

PREPARATION

Caution: Use potholders when handling hot saucepan or bowl of soup. Refrigerate leftover soup in separate container. When opened, edges of can be sharp.

MIX soup with one can of water or milk if preferred.

Stove

HEAT soup in saucepan on stove until hot. STIR occasionally. Let cool 1 minute before serving.

Microwave

HEAT soup in microwave-safe bowl on high 2 to 4 minutes or until hot. STIR and then let cool in microwave for 1 minute before serving.

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