Like many journalism majors, I view the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook as the holy grail of editorial rules. Being a lifelong grammar enthusiast has certainly contributed to this. But, the larger reason for my affection is this: Having a single source of truth to guide content creation is invaluable for all writers. This also rings true for any organization.
It’s essential for your company to have its own unique style guide to serve as an editorial road map. Every piece of content your organization produces — from videos to white papers to infographics — should sound consistent and in line with your brand voice. At the end of the day, a content style guide is one of the best ways to accurately evoke your brand’s personality and voice while maintaining consistency across your organization and with your audiences.
The Value of a Content Style Guide
Thorough brand guidelines contain two equally critical halves: content style and visual style. But for now, let’s focus on the content side, which usually isn’t as formalized as design guidelines. However, when it comes to creating cohesive branding, standardizing how to format headlines is just as important as consistent typefaces and logo usage.
Consistency is the linchpin of brand trust and loyalty, and content is its vehicle. But achieving editorial consistency is difficult. This is especially true when you consider how many people at an organization typically touch a single piece of content before publication. Take this blog post, for example. By the time you’re reading this, multiple sets of eyes have likely reviewed this copy, each with their own personal writing preferences and editorial pet peeves. But the one thing they have in common is they all looked at this piece through the same lens – INK’s content style guide.
A content style guide digs into granular details and addresses company-wide rulings on contentious editorial debates like using the Oxford comma, how to format lists (should we use bullets or dashes?), and whether or not to capitalize job titles. These determinations may seem trivial, but content inconsistencies like these can undercut your brand’s credibility.
What’s Included in a Content Style Guide?
While every company’s style guide will look different, it should cover various subjects from punctuation and grammar to formatting and specific terminology. But style guides don’t have to be encyclopedic to be useful. Content style guides are also less static than their visual counterparts. For this reason, it’s important to view it as a living document that changes and evolves with your brand. Below are three considerations when creating your content style guide.
1. Decide on a Baseline Style Guide
You don’t need to list every grammar rule. Instead, decide on an existing style guide for your team to reference. The AP Stylebook is the most commonly used in journalism. However, the Chicago Manual of Style is also popular, especially for book authors. If you’re struggling with which one to go with, you really can’t go wrong with AP Style; it has been the leading reference for most forms of public-facing corporate communication for decades, after all. Once you’ve decided on your foundational external style guide, be sure to brief your team on how to access it.
2. Outline Rules on Grammar and Mechanics
A foundational style guide should include your company’s specific exceptions to certain editorial rules. While these exceptions will be specific to your company’s preferences and industry, below is a list of common inconsistencies we’ve seen.
- Abbreviations: What, if any, words can be abbreviated? Be specific about how these should be formatted as well. For example, is it U.S. or US? For acronyms, the general rule is to spell out a word in full on the first reference. But, some terminology may be particularly well-known in certain industries. In those cases, it makes sense to use the acronym regardless of when it’s referenced.
- Capitalization: Come to a consensus about when to use title case vs. sentence case, as well as if you’ll capitalize headlines, titles, and the names of departments within your company.
- Dashes: Your audience may not know the difference between a hyphen, an em dash, and an en dash, but they will most certainly notice if they aren’t used consistently.
- Numbers: Determine which numbers to spell out and which should be left as numerals. Do the rules change depending on the medium? What about when using numbers in dates and times?
- The Oxford Comma: Ultimately, this decision comes down to preference. Companies that decide to use the Oxford comma often do so in the name of avoiding ambiguity.
3. Define Your Brand’s Style and Tone
You can probably think of a few brands with a style or tone so specific that you know where the content is coming from after the first line (think Apple, Netflix, or Disney). The biggest takeaway is to specify your brand’s personality and remind your audience that your brand’s voice doesn’t change, but its tone can change based on the type of content.
Include a list of words that describe your brand as if it was a person. Next to these descriptors, include a “not” list, so people can visualize the balance they should strike. For example, “we’re professional, not stuffy,” or “confident, not cocky.”
This section should also include your company’s take on:
- Active vs. passive voice.
- First, second, or third-person points of view.
- Industry or company-specific terms and how to format them.
Bringing It All Together
To be valuable, your content style guide should be easily accessible and referenced often. If someone has a question about word choice or editorial preferences, direct them to these guidelines. The more eyes that are on your content style guide, the better it will be. Encourage people to offer suggestions, changes, or additions to make this resource truly relevant and unique to your brand. Language changes quickly, and your content style guide needs to not only evolve with your brand, but also with the world around you.
For example, COVID-19 introduced an entirely new lexicon to many of us. While you don’t need to turn your style guide into a medical journal, you and your team should research and determine how to communicate about the pandemic. These decisions might include a standard way to format “work from home,” or when it’s acceptable to use “WFH.” If your company’s leadership issued a statement, include it in your style guide with directions on how and when to link it within other content.
How you design and package your style guide depends on the size of your company and team. At INK, we created an online style library that houses everything from our visual identity to audience personas and template downloads. Putting your brand guidelines online makes it easier to centrally manage your entire branding and make updates instantly. To take your branding guidelines digital, you can host them with tools like WordPress or Google Sites. You can also look at online brand management tools, such as Frontify, Brandfolder, or Bynder. Whatever direction you decide to go, visibility and accessibility are paramount.
Infusing Inclusivity and Thoughtfulness
Companies have placed a heavy emphasis on diversity and inclusion, particularly in the wake of the global outrage and demands for racial equity and justice following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Brands must extend this focus to the way they communicate as well. Words are a powerful tool that can bridge people together but also act as a barrier, excluding and disregarding others.
Including inclusivity guidelines within your content style guide is more than identifying politically correct and incorrect terms. It signals to your audience that your brand respects and recognizes individual differences, cultures, and experiences.
Let’s Go Forth, Consistently
Having a thorough and thoughtful content style guide ensures your communications are consistent and creates a more recognizable brand voice that can help your audience engage and connect more personally. Remember: An inconsistent writing style is a lot like loud crunching while eating — easy to overlook coming from yourself, but impossible to ignore from others.