November 20, 2013 | By: Raj Dubey | 3 min read

I have to be honest with you - I am a sucker for style guides. They are the basis for communication, the one thing that ensures that in spite of the diverse landscape of employee personalities, the company speaks consistently. If you have never written a style guide, I’ll make sure you have a solid foundation for getting started. If you do have one (and I dearly hope you do), this article will help streamline the process and enhance its effectiveness.

The role of a style guide

Let’s get one thing clear: If you are using a style guide as a rule book, you’re doing it wrong.

A style guide should serve as a starting point for your writers. It must be merely what its name implies - a guide. When a writer sits down to create some masterful piece of content, it can be intimidating if they have no idea what is expected of their work. Is it okay if they throw in some pop culture references? Make a few jokes? Or, if they are the wordier type, can they use diaspora without fear of coming off too stodgy?

A style guide is not a virtual English teacher. It is not a grammar book. It exists to give your writers confidence in the language choices they make.

A style guide is the starting point for the writer to understand how the company wants to be seen.

Finding your voice

What is voice, and what is yours?

In short, if a brand is a company’s personality, voice is the repetition of a company’s personality. It is the expression of the brand to the customer, the way the company communicates. It is more than a list of adjectives. I’ll admit, it’s somewhat indefinable; voice is a very abstract concept. If you have an established brand, the process will be fairly straight-forward. However, if you do not, there are some exercises that can help nail down your company voice:

  1. Ask your employees: What is your favorite part about our company? Note that this should not necessarily be what your company does best, though it makes sense that there will be some natural overlap here. Ask them what they like. A company is, after all, only as good as its people. It follows that the people are a great starting point for determining your company’s personality.
  2. Ask your customers: What do you think of when you think of our company? Do not guess; ask. If this is impossible, get in touch with customer-facing employees. The information will be second-hand, but will still provide the necessary insight.
  3. Ask your company leaders: How should customers feel at every point of contact? The tone of voice will change according to the situation. What does the company sound like when someone first arrives at the website? In an error message? When they want to process a return?

Still confused about voice? Take a look at the following websites and notice the differences between the language on each site:

  • Dove
  • Coca-cola
  • Progressive (and Flo’s Facebook page)
  • Dollar Shave Club

Building the style guide

When you have your voice nailed down, it is time to bring in the writers. Find employees who have an innate understanding of people and have a flexible command of the English language. They should also be individuals who have been intimately involved with the voice-finding process. It will be their job to craft writing samples for the various points of contact between company and customer. A sample might look something like this:

Customer: “I am returning a product”

Company: “Uh-oh, you don’t love it? Mosey on over to our customer service.”

Organize the guide according to situation. It can be tempting to offer as many examples as possible, but usually this is not necessary and may prove to be a massive waste of time. Provide the necessary examples, but try to keep your guide concise for easy reference.

To allow for various writing habits, make sure you work with your writers through both group meetings and individual writing time.

Management and use

So you have a style guide. Congrats.

Now what?

It can be easy to assume your work is done. But the fact is that as time goes on, your style guide will need to change. Some companies will be able to get away with merely a yearly review to make sure everything still sounds right. Others will need to check it on a monthly, or even on a rolling basis. The style guide must flex with the direction the company is taking.

To accommodate these changes, put one person in charge of the style guide. This should be someone who was intimately involved with its creation process. Find someone who cares about its upkeep and let them have full ownership. It will make modifications much smoother and ensure that everything remains consistent. Allow employees to make suggestions as they notice things that could be improved.

Of course, it makes sense that a style guide is only useful if it is actively used. Make sure all employees who make contact with the customer has access to it. Introduce it during training for new employees. For current employees, each company culture will be different, but usually some sort of formal introduction from a higher-up is enough to lend the document the credibility it needs. Although the guide is not a rulebook, it is a crucial element of company voice and should be required reading for anyone communicating with the public through writing.

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