Harvard. MHRA. MLA. Turabian. If you studied communications, business or virtually any humanities subject in college, chances are you’re familiar with one or more of these style guides. Probably cursed their very existence on more than one occasion while struggling through an assignment. If your academic career happened to coincide with the digital age, you may even have questioned their relevance or felt they constrained your creativity. After all, in an age of txt spk and emojis, does anyone really notice if I put one space or two after a period? Does it even matter???
Many people may feel prescribed style guidelines constrict written communications, placing arbitrary “rules” on language, tone, flow and even emphasis. But is that really the case? I would argue that style guides facilitate communications, particularly among those for whom writing may not come naturally or be a regular part of their role. Does everybody in your organisation know whether to refer to the business as a single entity or not? Confusion often reigns as to whether ‘Company ABC’ is or are doing something. Whichever you prefer, consistency is key and everyone, whether in a comms role or not, should be aware of which to use. After all, every single email, letter, memo and missive that leaves your office, whether it’s going into the public domain or “just” to clients and partners, has an impact – tiny, but relevant – on how your brand, business and reputation is perceived.
As communications professionals, we see countless corporate style guides, both bespoke and adopted. As with many things in life, the best ones also tend to be the simplest. Issuing a tome of biblical proportions to employees who aren’t necessarily paid to care about such things will likely achieve nothing other than scaring the living daylights out of them. A clear, concise one-pager outlining a few simple, easy-to-understand guidelines should suffice for staff, while making it part of the induction process will ensure everyone in an organisation is aware of the basic style preferences from day one. Likewise, hosting the document in a central repository along with other comms collaterals such as Word and PowerPoint templates, vectored logos, Visual Identity guidelines, etc., means nobody must go looking for these items. Putting them at your staff’s fingertips means they’re far more likely to actually use them, all of which means your brand identity will be unified, cohesive and – above all – protected.
Such an at-a-glance style guide or “cheat sheet” could include:
- Whether your organisation is a singular or group entity
- Organisational pronouns – we/our, it/they etc.
- Case rules for headings – title or sentence
- Punctuation for bullet lists – end with a period or not?
- Agreed spellings for technical or industry-specific terms
- Guidance on use of Plain English
- Punctuation of titles and honorifics Mr./Mr etc.
- Email salutations, sign-offs and signatures
The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it represents a good jumping-off point and should certainly cover the basics for non-marketing and communications staff.
Another thing a well-thought-out and universally implemented corporate style can achieve for a company is a surprisingly heavy marketing lift. Tone of voice can have a huge influence on how a brand is perceived by the public, the media and other important stakeholders – are you friendly and informal, like Coca-Cola? Functional and expressive, like Starbucks? Or formal and factual, like most public bodies? Whatever your preferred tone of voice, consistency is key and universal application will buttress above and below-the-line marketing activity, PR campaigns and brand awareness.
Of course, style isn’t just important from an external brand reputation perspective. Clear, concise and – perhaps most importantly – sensible guidelines for internal communications can set the tone for a company’s culture and foster a genuine sense of community, mutual respect and shared ownership amongst employees. In particular, prescribing the use of inclusive, people-first language can go a very long way towards ensuring that everyone in an organisation feels valued, respected and free to bring their true self to work. Unwitting use of offensive or insulting terms can and does happen, but equipping your people with the best language tools you possibly can from the outset is in everybody’s best interest. Some readers may be thinking that such things fall into a HR remit, but comms can’t and don’t exist in silos and the fact is, you never know who might ultimately end up reading any piece of writing that originated within an organisation.
To quote Edward Gibbon:
‘Style is the image of character.’
What will your company’s character be?