Just as a company’s design needs to be consistent across its brand, the language it uses should also be consistent, which means… your company needs a style guide.
What is a style guide?
A style guide can be a few pages describing the type of language a company uses, the tone of voice communicated on different platforms, and the preferred spelling of key words; a style guide can also be something much heftier, like the Chicago Manual of Style.
Most companies—especially small or freelance companies—won’t need an overly complicated, book-length style guide. But it’s worthwhile spending some time thinking about words and phrases that are essential to a business, the kind of messaging needed to communicate the business brand and image, how business communications with clients and customers can align with the company’s profile or image, and how the public will receive the language used on a company’s website or across its social media accounts.
What are the benefits of having a style guide?
First, it’s important to understand that grammar and spelling matter. While bad grammar and spelling can lead to confusion, good spelling and grammar can make a good impression, make a company seem more trustworthy (bad spelling can make customers think a website is fraudulent), and help readers focus on the content (without the distractions of typos, awkward wording, or inconsistent punctuation).
While some spelling mistakes are harmless and funny, many aren’t. The humble typo not only has the power to make us appear less intelligent than we are. Poor spelling can also create confusion, a loss of clarity and meaning and in extreme cases it can cost millions in missed sales and job opportunities. It has the potential to wreck customer relationships and even ruin your chance of finding love online. (Source.)
Companies specializing in certain sectors use consistent, up-to-date lingo that resonates with potential customers or clients. This is equally important if a business seeks to branch out into a different market; it’s worthwhile exploring whether the company’s current language and vocabulary will translate effectively, or if tweaks need to be made.
A company style guide can also be time- and cost-effective. Everyone in the company should be on the same page with a set of guidelines to follow. The entire staff won’t naturally use language consistently, especially if staff members come from different social, cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds.
A style guide that’s disseminated across the company—most importantly to anyone that has a public-facing or content-producing role—clarifies the company’s intentions with the content it produces and clears up potential confusion among staff members.
Promoting a shared voice across the company’s external communications can be difficult. While still leaving room for creativity and individual personality (depending on the medium of communication and the company’s preferences), a style guide can help to make the company’s voice more consistent across various platforms. A super friendly, casual Twitter account doesn’t match with, for example, overly formal customer service.
The quality of communications across the business will likely also improve, as having a style guide promotes the idea that language is important and that staff should be conscious of how they’re communicating the company’s brand.
Depending on what’s included in the style guide, this set of guidelines can also ensure that the language the business uses across the board is more inclusive, not shutting out any potential clients or customers. This can be done by including guidelines on reducing biased language, including references such as the Diversity Style Guide or the Conscious Style Guide, and by promoting the use of plain language, so more potential customers can understand the language used on the company’s website, social media, and more.
Proofreaders and editors are still necessary, but a common style guide can cut costs and confusion, and promote cohesion and speed.
How should a style guide be used?
Everyone along the production line should be equipped with the company style guide. Content writers can refer to the style guide when choosing the appropriate terms to use, copy editors can make the punctuation and spelling consistent (and double check the tone and messaging), translators can get a feel for how to communicate the same tone and how to target the same audience in a different culture, and proofreaders can check again for spelling, punctuation, and general cohesion.
By providing all the stakeholders with the company style guide, not only are individual blog posts, press releases, etc. edited internally but also cross-medium or cross-communication, meaning that one blog post’s tone and spelling should match with that of the others, and should match (to a certain extent) with that of a press release.
Style guides should also be provided to any freelancers providing language services for the business. One of the disadvantages of working with freelancers is that they’re not integrated into the company culture, so it can take longer for them to match the company’s voice. Providing freelancers with a style guide from the start can make this process smoother and quicker, reducing questions, rewrites, and edits.
Encourage employees to take a little extra time to adjust to the style guide. Investing some time into studying the style guide at the beginning can save time and money in the long run; once staff are accustomed to the style guide, communicating in line with the style guide will come naturally.
What needs to be included in a company style guide?
The content of a company’s style guide depends on the business, the industry, the company’s brand or image, and the company’s target audience. A style guide for a media company, such as a journalism website, will be inherently, vastly different from a style guide for a science advocacy organization, for example, but a style guide for either organization is immensely valuable.
Below are some examples of common things to include:
A glossary of important words and terms key to your industry, brand, or target audience. Include how to spell or hyphenate these terms, as well as any relevant abbreviations.
Punctuation preferences: Does the company want to use the series comma? Double or single quotation marks? Are exclamation points frowned upon? Is the em or en dash preferred?
Company name stylization: Do any of the words in the company name need to be capitalized, italicized, or bolded? It’s essential that the company name is represented consistently across the brand.
Variant spellings or grammar for clients in different countries, target groups, etc. Companies that operate internationally will likely want to have style guides dedicated to different target languages and countries (e.g. one for US-based clients and communication and a separate style guide for UK-based clients and communication).
Length guidelines (e.g. short and sweet emails, lengthy blog posts, etc.).
Platform- or medium-specific tone-of-voice guidelines. Although a style guide’s basic function is to make language consistent, there will necessarily be some differences between how the company should communicate on LinkedIn, in reports, or in interviews with the media, for example.
Other resources to consult, such as which dictionary and/or external style guide the company prefers or references on reducing biased language.
Recommendations for the production pipeline (writing, editing, translation, and proofreading). For example, how to communicate among the parties involved in the creation of certain content, or guidelines on how much time to spend reviewing your own writing before passing it along to the next person in the production chain.
Lots of examples!
A company style guide doesn’t have to be dozens of pages long or overly complicated. Start with a couple pages and develop the style guide as needed—necessary changes and additions will naturally pop up.
Ready to get started? Find some example style guides from successful institutions here, check out the additional resources below, or email me to ask any questions.
Mailchimp has a great, quick summary on the difference between company tone and voice, as well as more resources (see links on left) on the nitty gritty of different types of company communication—from writing blogs posts to copyright and trademarks.
Content Reactor also has a good post on establishing a company style guide, including more information on voice.
Please also see the posts and resources linked throughout this blog post.