Why does your style guide matter?

If your first response is “brand consistency,” you’re not alone. In a 2016 report, Demand Metric found that 90 percent of surveyed companies believed style guides helped promote important consistency in brand presentation.

The right style guide, however, 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, SmartBug contributor Joe Gillespie began writing for SmartBug 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 those words should look like on a screen” is consistent and welcoming to audiences. By doing so, a style guide helps reduce the risk that a reader will become confused or angered by inconsistencies or inappropriate terms while consuming your organization’s content.

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

Diversity and Inclusion: Keeping Your Team Focused

Language changes quickly. 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from various backgrounds refer to themselves or wish to be referred to by others runs the risk of sounding hopelessly outdated.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 examples include the following:

The Michigan State School of Journalism 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. TEAM Up offers a one-page style supplement sheet, intended to complement use of the AP Stylebook, for anyone reporting on mental health or mental illness-related topics.

Why Focus on Inclusion?

When content consistently refers to 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.”

Companies would 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 either chocolate or written 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, the AP’s director of media relations. Since changes to the stylebook are based on a critical mass of research and expert opinions as to language use, however, they 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 an organization 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. The preamble 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, the preamble might state that the style guide exists to “maintain consistency in brand voice and develop a sense of inclusivity and awareness of global issues within our 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, however, creator Kate Kiefer Lee discovered that the Mailchimp style guide PDF met the same fate as many other internal PDF 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