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What Does Your Company Need? Style Guide or Content Guide?

Right Source | February 26, 2015
Content Guidelines

Companies sometimes wonder how they should go about developing style guides, or whether they need to bother. It’s a complicated issue  or, at least, it is for companies that do it right.

That’s because most companies should not simply be developing style guides. They should be developing content guides. Let me explain.

I understand the need for a corporate style guide. It’s important to impose uniformity on, say, the proper usage of the company name and logo. Are you Coke, Coca-Cola, or Coca-Cola™? Or might any of the three be acceptable under particular circumstances? If so, what are those circumstances?

Style guides are meant to answer questions like that. But a good content guide ought to do more than just impose style rules. It should reflect the company’s corporate voice.

We’d better back up a bit.

What is corporate voice, and why does it matter? Simply put, voice is the way that you communicate your company’s brand. Every piece of corporate messaging, from your formal marketing and advertising pieces right down to your employee email signatures, should communicate your voice. Your executive team should reflect your voice in the way they communicate with employees; employees should reflect it in the way they interact with customers and prospects.

Without a voice, your brand exists only in theory. A brand that’s unexpressed is not a brand at all. In its place, your true brand will be defined for you by the market. Don’t expect to like it.

Voice in Action

In a former life as a trade magazine editor, I’d noticed that most of the publications in our space, including mine, were a bit stodgy. Stilted, formal language and dimly lit photos were common. So we decided to rethink our publication’s voice. We made an effort to define it, discuss it internally, and explain it with examples.

We wrote it all down in our content guidelines. This document included all the rules and preferences typical of an ordinary style guide, but it went further. It had a list of words and phrases unique to our industry and guidance on how to use them. It explained how to use our name under different circumstances. It listed any words that needed special treatment, like capital letters, that might not be obvious.

We made clear that we would use the Associated Press Style Guide as our foundation, and that our own guide would sit above that. Although our guide would take precedence for anything addressed in both, for the most part our guide covered things too unique to us to be addressed by the AP.

I recommend that you take the same approach. (You might choose The Chicago Manual of Style or another publically available style guide as your base.)

Ours was a content guide, though, so it covered more than mere style. In describing our voice, it included specific writing examples that met the mark, others that didn’t, and explanations of why. The goal was to help writers and editors understand how we wanted to present a piece of content, not merely what we wanted it to say.

Eventually, our editors and writers started to get the hang of it. It became second nature  our way. And what emerged over time was an editorial product that was uniquely, and definably, our own.

You should consider a similar exercise. You may not need a process quite so elaborate (a magazine’s voice, after all, is its product), but if you and your colleagues can’t explain your voice  if you can’t spot an example of a voice “violation” in your blog, for example  then your marketing isn’t serving its purpose.

If you’re not sure where to begin with the development of your own content guidelines, contact us for a conversation.

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