How To Quickly Create A Written Style Guide For Your Company
Your style is one of the most important ways you present yourself to your peers, your customers, and your potential clients. What do I mean by style? I’m not talking about what you or your employees wear (although we have a thing for awesome shoes at Nectafy).
I’m talking about style as the literal guidebook to your business’ written communication across platforms that speak to the customer.
Of course, Twitter’s 140-character limit has a different set of circumstances than a blog post or other, less-limited, platform presents. Stick to one “holistic” guide that addresses your overall style, but do consider adding sub-sections that address social media (Twitter, Facebook) or video and audio channels if you regularly use them.
A Style Briefing
Are you scratching your head wondering what I’m talking about? Here are pretty famous examples of style guides (sometimes called manuals) you may remember: the MLA Style Manual (think term papers); the Chicago Manual of Style (again, academic papers); and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook (most journalists and PR groups use AP style, and it’s the one you’re probably most familiar with, whether you realize it or not!). Many companies have a style guide template specific to themselves, including Wikipedia, The New York Times, Apple and Google (the last two are examples of design style guides, but they still apply).
Snag this written style guide template, and you can skip the work of creating your own style guide from scratch.
In fact, I bet, if you were to contact any company whose writing you admire, you could talk to one of their writers and find out about the style, or styles, they use.
So what exactly does a style guide dictate? When you choose to follow or create a style, you’re choosing the way your entire company will communicate certain things.
It could be the difference between allowing the Oxford comma or not: (“We’re going on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, and France.” vs. “We’re going on a trip to Germany, Switzerland and France;” in the first example, you’ll notice there’s an extra comma separating each item in the series.)
Other common examples include spelling out numerals instead of writing them, choosing how to capitalize words, or banning the use of the word “seriously” in your company’s copy. (I don’t know any examples of style guides that don’t allow the word seriously, but I’m just saying, it’s an option if you choose to go that route.)
Word nerds rejoice, right? (Well, yes, we do). But creating and maintaining a style isn’t just something editors do because we are bored (we aren’t!). There are several good benefits to implementing and following a style.
Why is style important to your business?
- Maintaining a writing style builds your brand. I like how this article says it: “People might not consciously notice it, but they’ll feel like something is wrong if things aren’t consistent from page to page.” The last thing any writer, or company, wants to do is annoy a reader by making him or her focus on things that don’t get the message across. By following a style, your communication will be more effective, seem more professional, and you will get a higher response rate.
- Style guides provide standards so your writers can write. You have limited time to be productive during the day. The same is true of your writers, who don’t want to re-invent the wheel each time they compose a new article. By providing a style guide, your give your writers a clear idea of not only what your company is trying to say, but the specific ways you want to do it (and especially the ways you don’t). They’ll have more time to do the work that matters.
- Style sets the tone for consistency. Whether you have one or a hundred, every writer (and every employee) has his or her own opinion on the best way to get a point across and their own methods of doing so. Style guides don’t muffle a writer’s distinct voice; they strengthen it. Think of a style guide as a good conductor who ensures each instrument plays its own part but unifies the individuals to the strength of the entire orchestra. That’s what a good style can do for your communication plan, and that should be music to your ears!
Why is style important to your customers?
For many of the same reasons style is important to your business internally, it is also important to your customers. Cleverly put, style is an expression of “clarity and grace” when you are writing both toward a client and for them.
Customers benefit from a cohesive style because they have less work to do as a reader. That “reading experience,” so to speak, is an opportunity to leave them satisfied and with a smile on their faces (or at least keep them from dropping an article halfway through!). If we can continually provide this type of positive experience for our customers, they will be able to easily recognize it, and some of them will, in turn, be unbeatable assets for brand publicity and promotion.
Creating or Implementing a Style Guide for Your Business
If you think the idea of a style guide is awesome but you’re not sure where to begin, I’d suggest starting on the same page with everyone who writes, whether that’s just you or your entire team. You already know how important it is to a hire a strong writer, so make the most of his or her talents and get him or her on board with finding a style that works for you. Here are some ideas to help you get started with how to quickly create a written style guide for your company:
- Think about major preferences you, as the owner, have in communicating to your potential customers. Now is a good time to make sure your writers know what you like and don’t like, so you won’t have to continually correct them.
- If your writer has a strong understanding of AP Style, known as the journalistic standard, you may want to adopt the style (or a loose version of it). It’s designed to be the most reader-friendly, so you don’t have to do extra work to decide if the style is working for your audience.
- Don’t be afraid to “break the rules” of style. Style isn’t a rule book, it is a guide. If something isn’t working for you, change it! If you have certain things you want to make a part of your company’s communication culture, implement them and use them proudly. Just make sure all of your writers know about them.
- Of course, you’re going to want to write your style down so no one forgets. Print and distribute copies with an “updated on” date, and keep a copy on a shared drive for easy access. Don’t be afraid to use your style guide as a working document, and let it evolve if need be.
Now that you’ve invested time in developing a style guide, make sure it doesn’t sit unused after the novelty of its creation wears off. Here are a few tips:
- Involve everyone from the get-go. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to participate in creating a style guide or necessarily agree with each item it addresses, but it does mean you should let your employees know that there will be some changes that will affect the way they write, and to keep an eye out for them and ask questions if they have them.
- Keep your style guide short (preferably to less than four pages). This helpful article on writing a style guide says “the goal is just to focus on points of style where there is no right answer but where one usage is preferred by the organization. A style guide is not the place to teach your colleagues things that they should already know.”
- Know what items consistently appear in various forms, and address them in your stylebook. For example, pretend you have a client whose name changed from Water Works Inc. to WaterWorks. Talk to your employees and take a look at all of the copy relating to the company to determine the different ways the company’s name has appeared. Sometimes changes like this happen with only a few people knowing, so don’t be alarmed if several people aren’t aware of the “new name.” Just address it in a group and add it to the style guide so everyone can be up to speed.
- Realize that not everyone (and maybe not many) people will read your style guide cover-to-cover. (This is why the first two items are important!) Brevity and inclusion will make sure at least everyone has a chance to skim the style guide, and providing a digital copy via EverNote, as a Google doc or on a shared drive ensures everyone has access to it should they need to reference something.
- Make at least one person a style guide administrator, whether it’s you or someone else. That person should have a thorough understanding of your style and should ideally edit, proof, or at least have eyes on copy in its final form for most of your projects. This way, they can have an idea of what is working in terms of your style and what needs to be adjusted, and they can implement and share those changes.
- Remember, it’s a guide, not a law. I like this quote: “The best way to make sure that nobody uses your style guide is to write it and then tell everyone else to obey it.” Style is important in honing a message, but it’s not the message itself, and it shouldn’t be divisive.
Once you establish a style, you’ll find that following it is easier than you probably thought. Your writers, your customers and your bottom line will thank you for your style!