Why does your style guide matter?

Brand consistency is probably the first thing that springs to mind. Anyone who has worked in marketing has seen (and probably ignored) brand guideline books telling us which images, fonts and colors we’re allowed to use.

The right style guide is aware of more than your company’s individual attempts to build a brand.

All content is a contribution to a conversation. As such, it responds to the same shaping forces as any other piece of persuasive or communicative work. Genre, audience and historical context all play a role in how content is understood.

The right style guide doesn’t just keep your content team on the same page. It also helps your team contribute to an ongoing conversation in a thoughtful, inclusive and agile manner.

How Your Style Guide Shapes Your Content

Style guides start by keeping everyone on the same page — both literally and metaphorically. A style guide helps settle questions surrounding spelling, punctuation and situations in which multiple versions of a phrase may each be grammatically correct.

Lack of a style guide can cause variations that frustrate writers, editors and readers alike. For instance, Joe Gillespie, senior copywriter at SmartBug, began writing for the marketing agency in the days before the company had instituted a style guide.

“When I started seeing terms spelled three different ways in content our agency produced, I wanted to scream,” Gillespie writes. “The problem wasn’t that my coworkers were careless, but rather, people tend to be unconsciously more focused on getting the words out of their heads and not think about what those words should look like on a screen.”

Style guides help ensure that what words look like on the screen is consistent and welcoming to audiences. By doing so, a style guide helps reduce the risk that a reader will become confused or put off by inconsistencies or inappropriate terms while consuming your organization’s content.

It can also make them more likely to do business with your brand. In a study of 452 professionals by Lucidpress, 32 percent of respondents said brand consistency increased revenue by 20 percent or more, 35 percent said it increased revenue between 10 percent and 20 percent, and 21 percent of respondents said it increased revenue between five and 10 percent.

Group of happy business people gathered around laptop computer in bright office; Style Guide concept

Diversity and Inclusion: Keeping Your Team Focused

It’s not just inconsistent content that can anger or confuse audiences. Language changes quickly and a style guide that doesn’t account for the ways in which people from various backgrounds refer to themselves or wish to be referred to by others runs the risk of sounding hopelessly outdated. At best, this outdatedness will seem quaint; at worst, it will be offensive.

One of the best ways to ensure your style guide addresses everyone in your potential audience inclusively is to examine the ways in which various minority groups have navigated identifying language.

A number of organizations for journalists, for instance, have published guides to help content creators build style guides, articles and other works. Commonly referenced resources include the following:

The Michigan State School of Journalism also offers several online guides compiled with the assistance of the communities they describe. Resources are currently available on appropriate ways to discuss Native American, Hispanic/Latino, and Muslim individuals and issues.

Some activist organizations and interest groups offer guidance, as well. For instance, Gender Spectrum hosts a guide to The Language of Gender, which focuses on gender descriptors and their uses. The Center for Disability Rights offers writing and journalism guidelines for reporting on the disability community, and the Suicide Resource Prevention Center provides a style guide for reporting on mental health.

Turns of Phrase: Helping Everyone to Understand

Certain phrases, idioms, slang and acronyms can exclude a significant part of your audience, regardless of their background. That’s why your style guide should help keep your copy clear and understandable for everyone. Beth Dunn, manager of product internal communications at HubSpot, explains the importance of plain language:

“Plain language is important from a usability point of view, but it’s also important for inclusion: think about all the people who are non-native English speakers, using our English UI, and those who are non-native French, Spanish, German, Japanese, and Portuguese speakers using those interfaces, too.

“We live in a world of continual migration and mass movement, a world of first-gens using our kind of technology for the first time, a world of all kinds of people trying to use our software in difficult situations that complex language would only exacerbate.”

Sport is a major culprit here. There are dozens of sports-related idioms that have become commonplace in everyday conversations in North America, but which will still be unfamiliar to many. “Calling an audible,” “beating someone to the punch,” and “a ballpark figure” may seem like conventional ways of saying improvisation, anticipation and approximation, and they may make sense to you even if you don’t follow (American) football, boxing or baseball. But they won’t make sense to all your readers.

Acronyms can also be a problem. Using an acronym may save you five seconds of typing, but it can alienate a reader who is unfamiliar with the term.

Referring to the National Labor Relations Board as NLRB may make sense to union organizers and most, but not all, Americans. But the acronym won’t be known by everyone and certainly not by every English-speaker outside the U.S.

The internal use of acronyms is a particular problem for new employees who can easily get tripped up by unfamiliar terms. TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) may force someone to spend far longer reading your synopsis than you expected, for example.

It’s not like they don’t have enough on their plate already, says content designer Rebekah Barry. “When you start somewhere new there’s a lot to learn — getting to grips with a different culture, getting up to speed with projects, getting to know new people. Learning a new language shouldn’t be one of those things.”

Why Focus on Inclusion?

When content consistently excludes certain groups or individuals using outdated or offensive terms, it risks alienating not only the people to whom those words refer, but also those who seek greater inclusiveness in their own interactions.

Chocolate maker Cadbury provides a visual example of how outdated thinking can offend audiences. In August 2019, the company released its Unity Bar, advertised as a celebration of Indian Independence Day. The chocolate bar contained squares of dark, mixed, milk and white chocolate.

This ended up getting roundly criticized for trivializing racism, though. “By creating a blended bar with four different shades of brown, Cadbury intended to celebrate the multi-cultural society in India,” Dr. Pragya Agarwal writes at Forbes. “Instead, they have created a product that demonstrates what tokenistic diversity looks like. It is a very good example of how brands get their message of diversity and inclusivity wrong.”

Companies can make the same mistake in their content by failing to consider a wide range of perspectives. For instance, restricting perspectives in marketing content can lead to the use of outdated or even offensive language that alienates readers, who interpret such language as a sign that they are members of the out-group.

These mistakes are not inevitable. By including multiple perspectives in the process of creating a style guide, an organization can help ensure it avoids gaffes like Cadbury’s — in any form.

Writer; Style Guide concept

Tips and Resources for Thoughtful Style Guide Development

A style guide can do it all: maintain brand consistency and offer sensitive contributions to cutting-edge conversations. Creating a thoughtful, inclusive style guide needn’t be a monumental task, either.

Start With an Existing Guide

Most content producers don’t need to build a style guide from scratch. Adopting an existing style guide can help ease the transition from “no style guide” to “follow these rules.”

Commonly used style guides in content creation include the Associated Press Stylebook (often just called “AP”) and The Chicago Manual of Style (“Chicago” or “CMS”). Several academic and professional organizations have their own style manuals, as well, including the Modern Language Association (common for works in the humanities) and the American Psychological Association (often used in the sciences).

AP and Chicago are commonly used, so readers might feel an early sense of familiarity with content that follows their guidelines. When readers don’t risk being tripped by unfamiliar spellings or configurations, they can absorb content more easily.

Be Willing To Deviate When Necessary

AP is one of the most commonly used style guides, but it isn’t always at the forefront of language or cultural change.

For instance, this Conscious Style Guide piece by Henry Furhmann raised issues about hyphenated terms like “African-American” more than a year before the Associated Press decided to embrace “African American” rather than its hyphenated predecessor.

“Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure but also something not American,” Fuhrmann writes of the hyphen.

The Associated Press is aware of the way language changes, says Lauren Easton, AP’s global director of media relations and corporate communication. Changes to the stylebook are based on a critical mass of research and expert opinions as to language use, but can often lag behind actual changes in the most inclusive way to refer to people, communities, issues or events.

Staying on top of language change, even when it means staying ahead of another organization’s style guide, can help your business avoid alienating its audiences by using a term that has developed a derogatory connotation.

Set Intentions at the Start

Need help deciding when to deviate? Consider starting your style guide project with a preamble. That introduction will “articulate exactly what this content style guide is for — what we hope to achieve by creating and using it,” says Yuval Keshtcher at UXPin.

Start with a brief statement that expresses the style guide’s goals. For instance, your opening statement might be that the style guide exists to maintain consistency in brand voice and develop a sense of inclusivity and awareness of global issues within your content.

A preamble not only helps keep the rest of the style guide project on track, but it also helps other users within an organization understand why the style guide places certain demands on expression.

Keep It in One Place

Mailchimp’s original style guide was a PDF file. Shortly after sending it to the rest of the Mailchimp team for the first time in 2015, creator Kate Kiefer Lee discovered that the Mailchimp style guide PDF met the same fate as many other internal mailings: People received it, but they never looked at it.

The solution? Move the style guide to GitHub. This public location also allowed Mailchimp to practice the company’s value of making information accessible and transparent to others.

Today, Mailchimp’s style guide lives on a publicly accessible subdomain inside Mailchimp’s own site. It’s broken down into a number of subcategories. As a living document, the style guide is updated regularly to ensure consistency and responsiveness to changes in the multitude of conversations and genres in which Mailchimp contributes content.

Your organization’s style guide doesn’t have to live on a web page for public view. It should, however, be kept in a file or document that can be easily accessed, updated and checked for consistency. By doing so, your organization can be certain that its consistent style, tone and approach to key conversations continues to change with the times, rather than fossilizing.

Images by: Andrew Neel, langstrup/©123RF.com, olegdudko/©123RF.com