What Is a Style Guide, and Why Do You Need One?

Whether for a person, a product, a service or an organization, creating a distinct, consistent brand is key to success.

Your brand sets you apart. You achieve a unique brand through images (your logo and product photos), through website content (descriptions of products and services), and through whatever additional forms of marketing and advertising you use.

Behind the scenes, your brand is supported by how you communicate with and serve your customers.

Customers want consistency, predictability

Customers want to know what to expect — to know that your company and your trusted brand are consistent, predictable and reliable.

Because this is a grammar blog, my focus is the written aspect of your brand — your words, your tone, the character you convey — and the role an editorial style guide plays in keeping your message consistent.

When you create an internal written piece — whether a report, an employee manual, or a training handout for using PowerPoint — be consistent with terminology, with capitalization and punctuation, and with “voice,” a quality that conveys your organization’s personality and values.

When you craft an external written piece — an email, a blog, advertising copy, or an article for a trade publication — your focus again should be consistency and predictability.

A style guide helps you deliver what those who read your messages want — and need — to keep your brand uppermost in their minds.

How should your organization use a style guide?

There are well-known general style guides and highly specific but lesser-known style guides. The most popular general guides are:

Most organizations count on one of the above as a basic, overall reference, but there are countless customized style guides for specific entities: manufacturers, universities, nonprofits, the financial sector, research centers, governmental agencies … and more.

The role of your internal style guide tells writers in your organization how to handle:

    • industry-specific terms or jargon
    • word or punctuation use not included in the basic style guide of choice
    • word or punctuation use that differs from the basic style guide

Most organizations also suggest a backup option. If you don’t find what you need in either the basic style guide or your internal style guide, check another resource. Merriam-Webster, available online, or Webster’s New World College Dictionary are popular options.

BizBash describes where staff should seek help for usage not covered in its internal style guide:

For style questions not addressed here, refer to The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. For spelling questions, refer to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. When a word has two spellings, use the one that is listed first (and therefore the preferred spelling).

What should you include in your company’s style guide?

You might want to begin by reviewing your company’s website through a new lens.

    • What industry-specific terms do you see?
    • What abbreviations or acronyms — perhaps trade organizations or governing bodies — are mentioned? Should they be spelled out when they first appear?
    • What product names might need explanation or clarification?
    • What might a potential or new customer, an intern or a new hire not understand?
    • In what ways do you deviate from the standard style you follow (AP, CMS or APA)?

If you work in a highly technical field, or if you do business internationally, you might want a glossary or appendix in your style guide where you can list, for example, equivalent measurements in both metric and imperial systems, or show industry terms in more than one language.

My recommendation: Start small, seek feedback, and revise and expand as needed.

How should you format your style guide?

For ease of use, alphabetical order by category is a good approach for arranging material. Or you might prefer each item in alphabetical order. This partial list includes a few examples:

ABBREVIATIONS & ACRONYMS

BULLET POINTS
capitalize first word and end with period only if complete sentence

CAPITALIZATION

COMPANY NAME

COMMAS
no comma before and in a simple series of three: sand, water and rocks
note: You might prefer a separate PUNCTUATION heading to include all usage, including apostrophes, commas, dashes, hyphens, exclamation points, etc.)

COMPOUND MODIFIERS
high-vibration environment
low-volume orders

DASHES
hyphen, en dash, em dash

FRACTIONS

HYPHENATED WORDS
e-commerce but email
pre-order but preview

ITALICS

NUMBERS
dates: 24 September 2019 or  9/24/19 or Sept. 24, 2019
times: 3 PM or 3 p.m. or 3 pm, 12:00 or noon/midnight
phone numbers: 608-742-7621 or 608.742.7621 or (608)742-7621
when to write out: seven vs. 7

PLURALS
when to add es (boxes, but matrixes or matrices?)

POSITION TITLES
capitalize before name, but not after: Shipping Manager Dan Brown, but Dan Brown, shipping manager

SUPERSCRIPT

Keep in mind these basic design principles as you format your style guide:

    • White space (don’t crowd elements on pages)
    • Contrast (consider large, bold font for headings)
    • Repetition (repeat similar visual elements throughout)

Who in your organization should use your style guide?

As you might expect, those in a company’s marketing function rely on a style guide to help them achieve consistency in multiple kinds of promotional messages. However, your guide should reach beyond marketing.

Melissa Stephany, director of marketing communications for Phoenix Lighting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, created a style guide for her company in 2014. She introduced it to all office staff, framing it as “communication training.”

In addition to marketing, participants represented accounting, customer service, quality, and inside sales, staff who frequently interact with those outside of the company.

“I stressed the importance of the written word and its influence on individual and company perception,” she explains. She clarified some common errors she had observed: Avoid two spaces after a period that’s followed by another sentence, for example.

“We strive to be deliberate with our communication and to ensure that everything we release to the world is taken seriously, reinforces our brand, and is a positive reflection of our entire company.” — Melissa Stephany, Phoenix Lighting

Because of a hiring surge, Stephany hopes to conduct another training soon for new employees. She notes that the guide has been helpful to a recent hire, a marketing specialist who has been responsible for new content.

All new office employees receive a print copy of Phoenix Lighting’s style guide in a welcome kit, and it gets specific mention during orientation.

How often should you update your style guide?

Because language and punctuation use evolves, you’ll probably want to update your guide at least every couple of years. Meanwhile, schedule regular reviews, and keep notes as elements for change come to your attention.

    • Have product lines or services expanded, or have their names changed?
    • Have company policies changed?
    • For critical updates, create a temporary appendix until your next overall revision.

Stephany has created an appendix with details about preparing presentations. As tablets have been incorporated into the outside-sales function, and because Phoenix serves multiple markets — industrial, mining and energy, ports and terminals, marine, aviation — she wants to ensure consistency wherever possible.

In terms style guide accessibility, it’s helpful to offer both print and electronic versions. Consider using Google Docs or your company’s intranet for easy access.

These two samples demonstrate how you can customize a style guide:

    • This sample guide from Epic Content Marketing is fairly complete.
    • This one from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is limited, but it serves its targeted purpose.

Remember: Both graphic and written elements comprise your brand

The graphic elements of any brand are visible and easily identified. Don’t neglect the written elements of your brand. A style guide ensures the attention to detail that helps convince your customers they will be consistently and predictably well served.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

2 thoughts on “What Is a Style Guide, and Why Do You Need One?

  1. AvatarTheresa Todd

    Great post. I’m interested to see if my organization has a style guide. I know there is something that shows employees how to use the company’s logo in presentations.

    Reply
    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Theresa. You make a good point: Organizations often take care to ensure that their visuals are consistent, but words also are a part of an entity’s brand. Good luck … and maybe you can help develop a written style guide if your organization does not yet have one.

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