Here, I delve into the what’s, why’s and how’s of creating and following a style guide.
What is a style guide?
A single point of reference that outlines the guidelines of all external communications. A good style guide will typically comprise of three parts:
- Establishing a tone of voice. One thing to consider is how colloquial you want to be. Will you talk in the first person? And what is your take on jargon, sentence length and so on?
- Writing rules (spelling/grammar/punctuation etc.). These are the choices your organisation makes and follows, as there’s no global standard. This includes making basic decisions like whether you’ll follow American or British English. Or whether you’ll capitalise certain words or not.
- Design. This will vary widely by organisation. Yet even the most traditional written content needs rules. For example, how will your bullet points be formatted? When and where can you use your logo? Do you use bolding and italics?
Why create a style guide?
- For consistency. Nothing screams unprofessionalism more than a document that uses inconsistent styles throughout. Imagine using the spelling ‘organisation’ a few times and then ‘organization’ another few. It’s sloppy and looks like you haven’t bothered to edit. And it certainly doesn’t demonstrate attention to detail.
- To avoid confusion (or worse, annoyance). For example, if you use different names for the same department within your organisation, how is the reader to know what the real name of the department is?
- To save time. If everyone in your organisation is familiar with your guide, it will save you from correcting everything later. Remember to share it widely so that all inputs (from internal colleagues to external content agencies) follow the correct style. This should also help when it comes to content you don’t have control over (think rogue marketers, or business leaders’ blogs).
- For branding. Your style of communication is a critical element of your brand. Like all branding elements, a consistent style helps distinguish your organisation from competitors and build long-term brand awareness.
- To unify. Multinationals cannot afford to operate without a style guide. The more countries and languages at play, the more important it is to get every employee on the same page. It’s ok to modify your guide for a specific audience: for example, it wouldn’t make sense to use British English with a US audience. But remember to specify in your guide exactly which modifications are allowed, and for who. And don’t forget that some elements – bullet-point formatting, for example – should always be the same.
How to create a style guide
First, appoint one person or a small group to be the owner(s) of the project. They will maintain the guide going forward (it should be considered an evolving document) and be the go-to for queries.
A good next step is to think about the tone of voice. This is the part most connected to your brand and will help set the scene for the writing rules and design. Collect ideas and best practices from across your organisation, to make sure you are aware of all the intricacies. And ultimately, think carefully about how you want to speak to your clients and would-be clients on an ongoing basis.
For writing rules and design, there are certain rules and best practices you can follow, but many components are up to you. There are several gold-standard style guides out there that can guide you. My personal favourite (and used as a default by Financial Content Lab) is The Economist Style Guide.
Once all three parts are written, it’s a good idea to combine in one document that is easily sharable across your organisation. And don’t forget to practice what you preach when it comes to the final output! Remember to share widely (ideally with supporting internal training) and update annually (or as you see fit).
Combining all the elements is no easy task, particularly for large organisations. This is where an external party can help. With experience producing style guides for medium and large-sized financial organisations, I would be happy to have a conversation on how Financial Content Lab can help.