The term ‘style guide’ sounds exotic, conjuring up images of fashion shoots and advice on the season’s key trends. In the world of content marketing and publishing, style guides are anything but glamorous, but they are essential to ensuring consistency across your branding and literature.
Style guides are the starting point from which your content flows. They cover more than just the written word, too. As well as laying down rules for commonly used terms, they provide a blueprint for your brand guidelines, including logos, fonts and colour palette.
I come from a journalism background, and everywhere I’ve worked has had a style guide that the sub-editors and writers religiously stick to. Not following style guides allows inconsistencies to creep in, which not only looks unprofessional, it also weakens the impact and authority of what you’re writing about.
Julie Sheppard, commissioning editor at Decanter wine magazine, says: ‘House style guides help give your publication its voice and identity. Consistent presentation of content makes it easier for readers to engage with copy – although they probably won’t even realise all the subtle points of house style that combine to make their reading experience more cohesive.’
A good style guide covers the following:
- tone of voice
- brand guidelines
- writing guidelines
1. Tone of voice
It should go without saying that your brand must have a clear tone of voice. But is it professional and no-nonsense? Edgy and cool? Warm and friendly? Whatever it is, your content must echo this in its tone of voice, otherwise the message will become muddled and you’ll turn people away.
Your audience is absolutely key to your content’s tone, too. When assigning work to someone, it’s key they are told who they are writing for. If your article will mainly be read by millennials, you’d write it in a noticeably different way than if it was aimed at people in their 50s and 60s, for example.
Compare these examples:
hello, we’re innocent
…and we’re here to make it easy for people to do themselves some good (whilst making it taste nice too).
We started innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’ in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking.
Since then we’ve started making coconut water, juice and kids’ stuff, in our quest to make natural, delicious, healthy drinks that help people live well and die old.
Very impressive. This intro is friendly, warm and approachable. There’s a lot to like about innocent’s straight-up style that’s a world away from the hard-sell tactics of some brands.
Old Spice, the 1970s-tastic aftershave, was long regarded as a brand stuck in a time warp, with its testosterone-fuelled tone. But Old Spice has reinvented itself, sending up its old image with its Smell Like A Man campaign, starring the likes of Terry Crews and Isaiah Mustafa. The tone is playful and tongue-in-cheek – the perfect antidote to its straight-laced former style.
2. Brand guidelines
Brand guidelines cover a huge number of variables, laying down rules for which fonts to use (and their size); acceptable Pantone colours/shades, the correct way to use logos, and many more. The level of detail with some brands can be immense, just like Jamie Oliver’s version:
Having such rigid guidelines may seem excessive – draconian, almost – but they ensure a level of consistency every time a brand is mentioned and represented. And in such a crowded market, this helps ensure that your brand will stick in the people’s minds.
3. Writing guidelines
The final aspect of a style guide is how you choose to present your writing. This will be governed in some respect by your tone of voice, but it’s entirely up to you. Newspapers, magazines and websites all have their own style guides – and if you want to write for them, you’ll need to learn them.
Here are some examples:
- Numbers: do you write ten or 10? Do you say 5,000,000, five million or 5m?
- Dates: do you write out days in full or abbreviate them? Do you write 5 March or 5th March?
- Times: 11.30am or 11:30am? 12- or 24-hour clock?
- URLs: do you include ‘www…’ at the start? Personally, as nobody types them out any more and because browsers don’t require them, I always leave them out
- Acronyms: NASA or Nasa? The former is technically correct but the latter easier on the eye.
In the examples above, neither option is correct – what’s important is that you choose one option and stick with it.
It should be obvious by now that if your business doesn’t have a style guide, you’re missing out. Style guides require work and planning to set up, but once in place, they’ll make your content and overall brand message much clearer.
Having such rigid guidelines may seem excessive – draconian, almost – but they ensure a level of consistency every time a brand is mentioned and represented. And in such a crowded market, this helps ensure that your brand will stick in people’s minds.