Style guides: Why do you need one and what should it contain?

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 17/05/2017
style guide, writing, business

Traditionally, a publisher – think newspapers – kept a style guide to show the preferred spellings of words (program/programme), when to use italics, and whether to refer to married women as ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’.

But all organisations benefit from having a style guide. In this blog we’ll look at why that’s the case, and what a style guide must contain.

Consistency of expression

A style guide helps keep an organisation’s brand identity consistent, no matter what the written communication might be. Whether staff are posting on social media, emailing a government official, sending a sales letter, or contributing to the in-house newsletter, by consulting the style guide they can be sure that when speaking on behalf of the company, everyone is reading from the same page.

Tying all style guides together is the notion of consistency. IBM, a company no stranger to precise technical writing, has a 380-page style guide. Its authors make the point that within the organisation there are people with excellent writing skills and some who are, as they politely put it, “typically not well versed in the standards of writing for publication”.

“If the topics we write are not consistently presented, they will not fit together easily. If they are consistently presented, they will seem to speak with the same voice even though they are written by many individuals,” the guide states.

It even has notes on language when writing technical instructions for international customers: “Avoid using please and thank you. Technical information requires an authoritative tone; terms of politeness convey the wrong tone for technical information and are not regarded the same way in all cultures.”

Dates, dashes and dot points

Style guides should have sections on language, grammar and punctuation, for example when to capitalise words, and how to use apostrophes. They should demonstrate the uses of colons and semi-colons, and the mysteries of the hyphen, en-dash and em-dash.

Below are several date formats – which does your company use?

  • 16 March 2017
  • March 16, 2017
  • 16.03.2017
  • 16/3/2017
  • 03/16/17

If you don’t know, a style guide would supply the answer. Did you know the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has an approved numeric date order? Using it, the date above would be written 2017-03-16. In a world where different countries use different formats, adopting the ISO standard could be worthwhile if your organisation communicates with international clients.

By the way, what’s your company’s accepted style when using dot points? Initial capitals? Semi-colons after each item?

In terms of expression, the style guide should give examples of approved levels of formality. Is it okay to use ‘okay’ or ‘OK’? The style guide might suggest employees avoid slang, sarcasm, colloquialisms and emoticons. Are employees encouraged to sign off emails with ‘Cheers’ and a smiley face, or is ‘Regards’ preferred?

The style guide should indicate the correct way that positions from the CEO down are written. Is it John Smith, CEO, BigCorp, or Dr John P. Smith, Executive Director, BigCorp Inc.? The style guide is there to settle these issues.

Logos, fonts and layouts

Style guides can include templates that show acceptable use of colours, fonts and images for articles in the organisation’s newsletter or when writing a media release.

For example, there will be an approved logo that should be placed in a specific position on articles and media releases. There may be specific fonts indicated in all communications representing the company.

Apple uses a font called Myriad in all its advertising material, which is why it has a consistent and immediately recognisable look. Apple’s font style is as famous as its products.

How to start your style guide

Before you write your style guide have a look at other guides online. The Monash University Editorial Style Guide is a good place to start. It will give you an idea of the sorts of things you should be covering in your organisation’s style guide.

The Commonwealth Government Printing Office’s Style Manual, available in print, is of particular interest for organisations applying for government tenders, and a good place to look when formulating your own style guide. Correct use of government terms and formatting can be found here, along with exhaustive advice about grammar, punctuation and correct forms of address for all written communications with government.

Make sure that your guide includes technical references, abbreviations and acronyms commonly used in your industry.

For example, an Australian rail company might include the acronym ‘ONRSR’ for the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator, with a note that in the first mention it should be written in full followed by the acronym in parenthesis, and following that just the acronym should be used.

There’s a lot of work involved, but the importance of a style guide cannot be underestimated and will become apparent as you add to it and see it in use.

It settles recurring problems in the use of abbreviations and acronyms, job titles and key technical terms.

The result will be an improvement in the way the organisation is perceived, not only through its advertising material, but its newsletters, emails, tender applications and sales pitches. In this way, clear, consistent communication in all matters will become part of your brand.



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