Style guides aren’t just for logos

I can drive people crazy when they ask me to read over their copy. Detail oriented? You bet. I even went out on a limb and told people that, yes, punctuation matters in your blog posts. Most people assume that I’m just that way because I’m a perfectionist. Some days I’d accept that title, until you see my desk.

My bend for consistency has a minor point and a major point. On the minor side, junky punctuation or inconsistent capitalization is simply distracting to read, whether you’re conscious of it or not. How you punctuate a sentence dictates how it’s read.

The bigger view of consistency is intention. Those very punctuation marks can make the difference between a whisper and a scream; a non-chalant mention of a fact or a very dramatic stand on a soap box. You can craft a statement with drama in one case, but then bring it up again and it’s just a whisper if you’re not consistent. And there’s a difference between doing this as a device to create an emotion, but most likely the inconsistency is unintentional, and can have unexpected results.

Heck, this even goes beyond good spelling and punctuation. Preserve your tone so that you don’t sound like a punk one day and a Harvard snob the next. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but you get the point. Diversity is great, but for most forms of communication, you want to maintain a similar tone and timbre throughout. I’ve mostly worked with communication “campaigns,” where sounding the same from message to message is critical, as in an advertising campaign. But this holds true for most communication. The idea of a style guide comes from the land of publishing, and it’s a very valid concept for business and blogging as well.

The most familiar style guide is the one I was taught in college: The Associated Press Style Guide, or AP Style Guide. There’s the more formal style guide for book publishing, the Chicago Manual of Style. News agencies usually have their own version of the AP Style Guide, or a completely custom version. For fun, I like to read the entries of The Economist Style Guide. I can’t explain it; you simply have to run over there and see for yourself. Danged funny and gets the point across quite well.

How does a style guide work in business communication? I have a couple great examples from corporate publishing. Both involve big companies that have “divisions,” and have evolved into what some call “silos.” Essentially, there are multiple brand managers, each responsible for how his or her own brand is expressed. Sure, there are inherent problems on an organizational level, but this creates an additional issue when the company as a whole wants to communicate something that applies to all brands.

For General Motors, the challenge was to communicate its sustainability plan for the entire company. Lots of smart people had already begun the mind meld and shared best practices on how to run manufacturing facilities efficiently, with very little waste. Unfortunately, they all talked about their efforts in many different ways. It made sense for facilities in Brazil to speak differently of waste than those facilities in the U.S. With some feedback from a non-profit organization that grades corporate sustainability reports, GM was able to spot ways to speak consistently throughout the report. While having diverse voices may seem like a good thing, the report was stronger when the diversity was communicated through the actions reported, rather than sounding like 50 people were talking all at once.

GM, with the help of a top-notch public relations firm, did a great job at establishing a set of guidelines for when to explain jargon in context, and when to relegate explanatory content to a call-out or end notes. The result was a report that impressed the unified front the company has adopted to reduce carbon emissions and waste in manufacturing facilities, but also appreciates how differences in economy, environment and social climate resulted in creative thinking to solve problems unique to each location. A style guide pulls common threads throughout multiple stories and creates a cohesive message, rather than a scattered set of stories.
Another company had the same challenge, different audience, but a much worse starting point. Given the same organizational structure, a lighting company realized that many of its products already were “green,” long before it was cool to be so. It sounded like a great idea to create a web site and brochures to present certain products from multiple brands, illustrating how these particular products reduce energy use. The agency charged with writing the materials spotted a problem right away, but couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was. At first glance, the differences in how products are detailed jumped out at me. Sure, it’s a minor consistency thing that can be fixed, but after some coaching, we all saw how the tone and style changed throughout the content. Sure, one brand of fixtures was targeted to industrial buildings, while another was targeted to hospitals and civil installations. Finding a common ground on sustainability footing helped shore up all the content.

Ideally, you’d start with a style guide. But, if you’ve found yourself with meandering content, try creating an abbreviated guide. Start with a goal for how you’d like to communicate. While a publishing style guide is much more rigorous than what I’m about to outline, start with something. A style guide grows as you more clearly define your… yes, style.

  • Set some standards for tone and voice. Use samples of what you like and don’t like, even if you don’t have words to describe yet.
  • Catalog language the company has already established into categories of “like” and “don’t like.” At Quicken Loans, they are passionate about not using the term, “department.” Instead, everyone is a “team.”
  • Take a stand on variations. Do you want to use “website,” “web site” or “Web site”? No one really cares, as long as you’re consistent.
  • Start with an existing guides, and consider adopting one, then customizing with your own specific entries. A wiki is a great place to do this. Simply reference the starting guide, then add entries on the wiki as you canonize them. Be sure everyone knows where to find the starting guide.
  • Document all industry-specific terms, and include definitions. Include exact spelling, capitalization, punctuation and word order. Be sure to document all trademarks and registration marks owned by your company.
  • Use your style guide to root out jargon. Establish ways to define jargon, and when to be “educational,” explaining terms that might be unfamiliar to your reader.

This may sound like an exercise in stating the obvious, but when you have large amounts of content, it will definitely help keep you on track. It is easier than you think to change tone, voice, usage and consistency as you write and edit copy. And don’t think that you should be the only person writing and editing! Everyone needs an editor, and establishing a guide will help an editor both focus on your goals and provide a great outside perspective on whether or not you’re really meeting them.


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