The first time I rode a motorcycle I was on the back, clinging to my college roommate. He happened to have a second helmet, it fit well enough, and I was eager to get to the other side of campus.

He gave me two instructions:

  • “Keep your feet on the pegs.”
  • “I am not a steering wheel.”

Can you guess which instruction he complained about at the end of the ride?

Here’s a hint – it’s easier for a not-already-knowledgeable person to follow a positively-worded instruction (do this) than a negatively-worded instruction (don’t do that). It’s even harder to follow an instruction when it relies on a metaphor, as it’s less clear, less obvious, less instructive. The combination of negatively-worded and unclear is worse yet.

I should have asked clarifying questions, like “what would it feel like if I was treating you as a steering wheel?” but I didn’t think to at the time.

At work we just did a retro on a somewhat fraught and over-large project, and much of the raw conclusions are negatively-worded. Some are metaphorical. The people involved are knowledgeable but from different disciplines, so the level of shared understanding is probably lower than people guess. So a lot of “don’t do X, don’t do Y” will probably not get the results we seek. I’ll be helping to bend these into positively-worded instructions today. I suspect our success will depend on it.