The One Where He Talks About Style Guides


Spring is in the air. Time to clean out our closets, open the windows wide, sweep away the winter dust, and refresh our personal style.

Now, when it comes to personal style, mine admittedly leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, just the other evening my wife and I were binging on some old episodes of Friends. Yes, the classic 90s sitcom that basically held a mirror up to my life for the better part of that decade.

Anyway, we were watching one episode where Ross walked into Central Perk to meet up with the gang, and I remarked (aloud, I think)— “Hey, Ross is wearing my shirt!”

Not, “I used to have a shirt like that,” or “That looks like something I would have worn way back then.” No— “I have that same shirt NOW, that Ross was wearing THEN.”

As Chandler Bing might say, “Could I BE more out of fashion?”

Fortunately for a sad sartorial specimen like me, spring is also a great time to refresh your business’ style. By that, I’m referring to dusting off your organization’s communication strategy and taking a hard look at how you represent your brand to your audience.

Yes, friends – I’m talking about your marketing style guide.

OK, first things first. Perhaps you don’t have a style guide. That makes sense. Why do you even need one? Well, here’s why:

  1. Consistency – Your brand is your most valuable asset. To protect, preserve, and promote your brand, it’s essential to maintain consistency in messaging across all mediums and modes of communication.
  2. Clarity – A style guide helps clarify your brand message, and how that message is communicated. It helps reduce or eliminate any confusion among people in various roles across the enterprise and ensure that everyone always stays on message.
  3. Simplicity – Without a style guide, it’s all too easy for people to dilute the message. A style guide simplifies the process of writing any type of document and reduces the risk of confusion.
  4. Speed – With a well-conceived style guide, there is no doubt how to write a document. For your content creators, this speeds up the writing process, improves quality, and reduces the amount of editing and proofreading required.

Now that you understand why you need a style guide, let’s discuss how to develop one that’s effective and useful:

  1. Don’t recreate the wheel. To make your job easier, reference an industry standard like the Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook as your default for grammar, punctuation, and word usage. These guides address common areas of contention like whether to use the Oxford comma, and how to write numerical and financial terms.
  2. Note unique differences. Make sure to specify any differences in writing style among documents you write for various purposes and audiences, such as internal communication, technical documentation, client reports, social media, and marketing materials.
  3. Watch your lingo. It’s a good idea to call out any specific jargon, industry terms, or acronyms you allow in your writing. In general, it is best to avoid jargon and technical terms whenever possible, but if there are unique terms that your clients and audience understand, identify those in the guide.
  4. Keep it short. A writing style guide should run only a couple of pages in length. Many organizations produce a comprehensive branding style guide that includes both written and visual guidelines, to ensure branding consistency across all media. If your style guide includes visual guidelines, its fine to stretch it out to four or five pages, including illustrations and examples.
  5. Address your brand voice. Is your organization’s preferred style conversational, or formal? Do you get technical, or go for a layman’s tone? Your style guide should spell out your company’s unique voice, level of formality, and word usage, and whether it differs among various types of content and media. For example, you may choose to allow an informal, conversational tone in blog posts and web content, but never in white papers, client reports, and email. Content Marketing Institute offers up some great examples of corporate style guides that effectively address voice here.
  6. Avoid international incidents. If your brand has a global footprint, customize the style guide to the unique cultural differences of the regions you serve. History is filled with examples of U.S. brand messaging getting lost in translation overseas. One notorious marketing snafu was the Chinese debut of Pepsi’s slogan, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life.” Unfortunately, someone translated this phrase as “Pepsi Brings You Back from the Grave.” Pepsi was D.O.A. in China, for a while. (For a fascinating look at Pepsi’s history, including its most notorious marketing fails, check out this video.)

Take advantage of this season of renewal to develop or refresh your marketing style guide. Once created, it’ll always be there for you.

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