style guide

Create a company style guide.

It’s been there, on your to-do list since you assumed your role. And yet, every week, there it remains. It seems like such a daunting task and, really, why bother? You only have two people on your team and you’re all on the same page when it comes to content creation.

Whether your marketing department is a party of one or takes up its own floor, you need a style guide. Why? First, your team may change (hopefully, it will grow!), or you may decide to rely on an agency to help out occasionally. Plus, marketing isn’t the only team that creates content. The key to a strong brand is having everyone in the organization speaking the same language, particularly when talking to customers. That includes everything from billboards and event flyers to invoices and privacy notices.

The good news is creating a company style guide doesn’t have to be difficult. Follow these steps.


1. Choose a base style guide.

To simplify things, we recommend choosing a well-known style guide — Associated Press is standard in public relations and marketing — as your base and then using your company style guide to spell out any exceptions and address any terms not mentioned in the base style guide. For instance, perhaps you want to use AP style but you want to use healthcare as one word instead of two, and you don’t wish to set em dashes off with a space on either side. No problem; just add those details to your brand style guide.


2. Consider voice and tone.

This section should help direct writers on key dos and don’ts regarding the written brand. This isn’t about grammar or capitalization. It’s about how your writing sounds. Are you educational and professorial? Academic? Are you formal? Conversational? Are you all business? Do you have a sense of humor? Are you OK with speaking directly to your audience or should everything be written in third person?

Consider not only your customers and prospects when you answer these questions, but also your various audiences. You do not need to have a single tone for your brand; rather, you can have different tones for different audiences. A hospital might wish to take a formal tone with physicians but a conversational tone with patients. A technology company may want to convey its expertise to IT professionals by using industry terms but wish to be more accessible to everyday consumers. Some brands will even need to consider writing to a certain grade level, such as health insurance companies that need to adhere to Medicare and Medicaid guidelines.

This is also a place where you’ll want to include what you’re not. For example, a lot of women-centric brands like to explain they are not anti-men. A wellness program may wish to explore the delicate balance between providing disease statistics and frightening readers. Your brand’s sense of humor may not want to devolve into being silly or raunchy.


3. Spell out brand-specific terms.

This is where you’ll want to address any terms or verbiage that’s specific to your brand. You’ll definitely want to spell out how your company name should appear in any materials. For instance, must it always be spelled out or is an acronym OK on second reference? Should it always be capitalized, even in URLs?

Use this section to also address any product names, company divisions, trademarks and employee titles (to cap or not to cap, that is the question). And if you call your HR department the Tremendous People Team or you have any meaningful company terms, programs or initiatives, say so here.  


4. Address word preferences.

Just as your organization has terms it likes to use, it may also have certain words that are no-nos. Perhaps focus groups have reacted negatively to “robotic surgery,” and so now you always use the term “robot-assisted surgery.” Maybe a copy director despises the term “state-of-the-art” or legal dictates you can’t use terms like “best” or “cured.” Include these words along with suggested alternatives here.


5. Describe how to handle display type.

For most of your materials, you should have a set style for the way you write headlines, decks, subheads and other display type. Your style guide should note whether these should be sentence case, initial caps or all lowercase. You might also have a preference for the way headlines are written. For example, do you want never to use a question as a headline? Do you wish to avoid using gerunds in subheads?


Distribute, distribute, distribute!

On a roll? You don’t have to stop there. Your editorial style guide can be as robust as you want or need it to be. It also isn’t set in stone. Make a plan to revisit and update your guide at least once a year, adding new terms and taking out passé information (the company fax number anyone?) And don’t forget to make it readily available to anyone who creates content for your organization.