If multiple people create content for your business, you need a corporate style guide. Otherwise, you risk having a corporate identity with personality disorder.
Keep a consistent voice across your content
If you don’t already have a style guide, don’t fear. It doesn’t have to be a huge project. Here’s a case where the perfect is the enemy of the good. It’s better to have a basic, barebones guide that people will actually use, rather than a complete AP Style Guide discourse.
At a minimum, the style guide should cover terminology specific to your company/industry, as well as the most common mistakes you see from writers.
Here are the five basic elements that I include in the ‘quick-and-dirty’ style guides I sometimes create for clients. (Note that logo usage, fonts and color schemes are out of scope – although the style guide is a good place to include them.)
1. Product naming and usage
It seems obvious, but needs saying. The style guide should include:
- Product names (with correct capitalization)
- Product name usage – For example, should you “install seven Acme Gizmos” or “install Acme Gizmo on seven servers?”
- Product category – Be consistent about how you refer to the product.
Share the overall tone and voice, based on the ‘corporate style’ you’ve identified (see my previous post on Finding your corporate style). Considerations include:
- Second person – Do you write ‘you’ when referring to the reader?
- First person plural – Do you want to say ‘we’ in your website? In which situations? (For a discussion of using “we”, see Gini Dietrich’s recent post about “eliminating the French” from your website.)
- Active/passive – Encourage people to avoid excessive use of the passive voice.
- Authoritative vs. collaborative – Do you want to be perceived as the font of authority, or do you want a more engaging style?
- Humor – Is it appropriate, and if so, where and how much?
Blog contributors will write in a personal tone and style – that’s appropriate and expected. They have more leeway on sentence structure and the use of first and second person. But blogs should still use the same grammar rules, product naming and terminology as pieces written in the corporate voice.
Use the AP style guide or Chicago Manual of Style as a final arbiter for punctuation. However, your style guide can resolve the most common dilemmas for writers, including:
- Commas – Choose a side in the great serial comma debate and stick with it. (The serial comma is the last comma before the ‘and’ in a list).
- Dashes – If dashes are consistent with your corporate style, do you use an m-dash or n-dash? Lay out for people exactly how you want dashes to appear, and whether you want a space on either side or not.
- It’s and its – This is such a common mistake that it’s worth putting in your style guide. The possessive does not have an apostrophe, the contraction does.
Which terms/words common should you capitalize? Legitimate candidates include:
- Product names
- Terms for which you have trademarks or registered trademarks
- Terms that make up an acronym (Bring Your Own Device or BYOD)
- Initial words of headings (depending on your heading styles)
- Industry terms like “Internet” or “Wi-Fi”
Note that when it comes to capitalization, more is not better. Do not capitalize words within sentences without good reason. Make a strong stand against random capitalization.
5. Blacklisted words
Come up with your personal list of overused or stale words and ban them from your content. Anyone using a blacklisted word should present a convincing business case. My personal blacklist includes:
- Leading – This word is overused to the point of meaninglessness (I’m a leading provider of content marketing strategy – bleh.)
- Impactful – Need I say more? Even “impact” is often used incorrectly.
- Utilize – 90 percent of the time I see the word ‘utilize’, it is an ugly substitute for the simpler ‘use.’
Share and collaborate on your style guide
Now share your barebones style guide with everyone creating content on your behalf – from writers to bloggers, designers and editors. Be sure to put a date on it. An effective style guide will continue to change over time.
Using a style guide will help you create consistency across your content marketing efforts and reinforce your brand image.
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