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What is a style guide and why is it important for your organization?

Some businesses view a style guide as a nice to have rather than viewing style guides as a key factor in optimizing clarity in communications.
6 min read

Caoimhe Gaskin

Lead Content Strategist

What is a style guide and why is it important for your organization?

When used correctly, a style guide can be one of the greatest assets you have for aligning organizational communications and creating positive customer experiences with your company.

What is a style guide?

A style guide is a document that maps out the way you communicate with your audience. From grammar and punctuation to voice and tone, the purpose of a corporate style guide is to house all the guidance your content creators need to deliver consistent, accurate, and relatable content that reflects what your organization stands for.

Why do you need a style guide for your organization?

Organizations today communicate with their audience across many platforms and channels. From Sales teams to Customer Success teams––every department in an organization is creating content in some form.

In this multi-channel, communication-intensive environment, maintaining a consistent brand voice can be challenging. A style guide provides the guidelines for all customer communication, ensuring it is correct and consistent, and that it meets today’s demands for a positive customer experience.

1. Clarity in communication

Your audience is looking for easy-to-understand content that fulfills their needs. Using plain language in your communications can help you cultivate trust and a meaningful connection with your brand.

Through clear and consistent communication, you can provide a stable presence in what can be a cluttered, overwhelming environment. Clarity in communication is the foundation of a customer-centric strategy.

2. Increase the efficiency of your organization

In today’s always-on world, time is a critical asset. Every organization is looking for ways to reduce time spent on daily tasks. And customers don’t have time to waste on complex product or service descriptions.

With a corporate style guide, you can eliminate the time employees spend finessing or correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling, and allow them to focus on creating consistently engaging content. This helps customers by creating clarity in your business writing. With VT Writer you can automate your style guide with Watch Word lists to create clarity at scale in your organization.

3. Enhance your customer experience

Today’s consumer is bombarded with content at every turn. You can cement your customer relationships by creating easy-to-understand, relatable messaging in a single tone of voice. And by eliminating jargon and complex language you can enhance your customer experience and deepen customer loyalty.

4. Decrease operational costs across your business

Providing clear and accurate information is as important as consistent messaging. By ensuring your communications are correct and delivering your message clearly, you can reduce follow-up calls from customers to call centers, and decrease the time and cost associated with handling these calls.

5. Increase revenue with clear communication

Delivering a consistent brand experience across all your platforms can have a positive effect on your bottom line. In fact, according to a 2021 survey of brand management experts, if an organization’s brand was consistent, it could expect revenue to rise between 10 and 20 percent. That’s because your audience will recognize your brand, no matter where they see it or interact with it. And this type of brand recognition can help your organization to stand out among your competitors.

What are the elements of a style guide?

A style guide contains guidance on grammar, punctuation, and text composition. But an effective style guide goes beyond communication basics and brand guidelines. It lays out how you speak to your audience across all your channels. Consistent and clear communications that showcase your brand are made up of many key elements. Here are some of the essentials.

Grammar rules

A style guide is the perfect place to highlight the basic rules of grammar. It’s also a good idea to list common misused words, including their/they’re/there, effect/affect and insure/ensure, and misused or misheard phrases (eggcorns), such as “biting my time” (instead of biding).

Your style guide should also provide guidance on capitalizations, particularly those related to your organization’s brand and product names. Language analysis software can instantly flag non-compliant and off-brand language.

Punctuation

Correct punctuation use, and indeed, incorrect punctuation use, can change the meaning of a message – the comma makes all the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”

To make sure your communications aren’t let down by poor punctuation, your style guide should explain commonly misused elements including hyphens (em dash vs. en dash), parentheses, period placement, and the infamous Oxford comma.

Acronyms and abbreviations

In your style guide, you should lay out your strategy for acronym and abbreviation use. Do you explain abbreviations in brackets immediately after the first use of the full term? Do you spell out the full name of a product, service, or organization in the first instance, followed by the acronym in subsequent mentions? Or do you have a limit as to the number of acronyms or abbreviations in each paragraph? 

Readability

Complex sentences packed with long, difficult words can lead to people tuning out and missing key messages. Your style guide should give direction on message readability. How long should each sentence or paragraph be? How can you reduce complexity with plain language instead of jargon?

The Flesch reading ease score measures the readability of any text using the average sentence length and number of syllables in each word. It assesses the text and offers a score between 1 and 100, with 100 being the highest readability score. Using this test is a great way to minimize the complexity of your copy, ensuring you get your message across clearly.

Voice and tone

Your style guide should offer guidance on how you speak to your audience, whether that’s your customers, suppliers or workforce. Is your tone helpful, friendly, educational or matter of fact? Do you avoid jargon altogether or explain particular references in plain language? Have you made it clear that writers should use only the active voice, never passive? Should you have the same tone across all platforms?

Five winning style guide examples

There are a number of style guides that have stood the test of time and are generally recognized as definitive in their specific field. The Associated Press (AP) style guide is arguably the go-to guide for news writing, but its influence on writing, in general, is far-reaching. MLA Style focuses on scholarly or academic writing, the Chicago Manual of Style is most commonly used for historical writing, and the American Psychological Association (APA) style is generally used in the social sciences area.

Here are five standout organizational style guides, each with a distinctive approach to fostering consistent communications and brand voice.

1. MailChimp

The email marketing brand, MailChimp, breaks its style guide into sections. Each section is focused on the type of content it publishes, for example, writing about people; writing for social media; writing email marketing. While MailChimp says its style guide “breaks a number of grammar rules for clarity, practicality, preference”, the directions in the guide are clear and unambiguous. MailChimp’s goal is to be genuine and accessible and that is reflected in its decision to make its style guide available under a Creative Commons license.

2. The Economist

This style guide is the epitome of attention to detail. For writers covering global politics, business, science, and economics, its guidance is exhaustive, but that’s the beauty of it, it leaves no room for error. From avoiding cliches to the proper use of parentheses––the guide offers contributors all the information they could need to be consistent with the publication’s brand. The style guide has been published as a book and is now in its 12th edition.

3. Buffer

For social media software organization, Buffer, voice and tone are key to its interactions with its customers. While its voice is consistent – “relatable, approachable, genuine, and inclusive” – its tone is fluid and changes depending on the situation. By default, the Buffer tone is empathetic and its tone guidelines are based in part on the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

4. Atlassian

The Atlassian style guide is a well-thought-out handbook. Its guidance on tone – be bold, be optimistic, and be practical, with a wink – is explained thoroughly and matches the organization’s values. Of particular note is its guidance on inclusive language, which removes any doubt about how to write for, and about, a diverse audience.

5. Frontify

Frontify’s approach to its communications style differs from other organizations in that it advises a different approach and tone across its many channels. From landing pages and the company blog to its social media channels, this style guide provides clarity on the different types of content, purpose, and tone for each channel.

How to create a style guide with VisibleThread

Technology is a useful tool for developing an effective style guide. Language analysis software like VT Writer offers a step-by-step approach to building your brand guidelines and provides helpful solutions like Watch Words to fine-tune your efforts by highlighting inconsistencies and incorrect grammar or word usage. Using technology removes a lot of the guesswork involved in creating a style guide, as well as speeding up the process with tried-and-tested solutions.

The following steps will set you on the right track when you’re developing your organization’s style guide.

Step 1: Identify a champion or team

Every department in your organization is creating content. To ensure message consistency across all departments, identify a champion or team who can offer guidance on the basics and can kick start the process of developing an effective style guide.

Step 2: Create a baseline with a content audit

Assess your existing customer communications. How do they measure up in terms of messaging, consistency, accuracy, and readability metrics? A content audit will give you a starting point on which to build your style guide.

Step 3: Make your style guide accessible

Your style guide needs to be accessible to everyone in your organization. Make it available on the company intranet and other channels that are popular with your workforce.

Step 4: Support writers to score content for clarity

Give your writers the tools they need to measure and score their own content for clarity, accuracy and readability. This will give them the confidence going forward that they are on the right track.

Step 5: Measure and improve

Continue to assess the adoption of your plain language program. Use technology like VT Writer to measure improvements in communications over time.

Why a style guide matters

A style guide is one of an organization’s greatest assets, yet its potential to dramatically improve communication clarity and accuracy has gone largely unrecognized. When used correctly and made accessible to all your departments, a style guide is the key to unlocking brand recognition. And by establishing a baseline tone that offers clear, accurate information, you have the opportunity to enhance your customer experience with clarity.

Aligning your company communications to a single tone of voice creates consistency and strengthens your brand. A language analysis platform like VT Writer can help you create clarity at scale with quantifiable metrics and actionable feedback.

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