Why You Need an Editorial Style Guide

Written by Andrew Kaufman on August 12, 2012.

archery target

Consistency is boring.

It’s not sexy, fun or awe-inspiring. It’s not the coolest new social media channel or marketing tactic. You don’t usually win awards or get mentioned on Top 10 lists for consistency. So why should you waste time worrying about whether your social media manager is using the same tone as your copywriter?

Because consistency is at the heart of all successful brands.

While consistently delivering quality and value to your customers is essential, it’s often just as important to ensure consistency in the way you communicate your brand’s message. This is even more important for large organizations that have multiple stakeholders creating, managing and distributing content. With so many different cooks in the kitchen, it’s easy for your brand to seem like it has multiple-personality disorder.

So how can you overcome a lack of consistency to ensure that your unique brand personality shines through in every piece of communication?

That’s right: an Editorial Style Guide. It may not be sexy. But it is good business.

What is an Editorial Style Guide?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with one, an editorial style guide is simply a basic manual of general rules and guidance for all internal and external communication throughout your organization.

It’s not a bible to be followed religiously (unless you’re a church, in which case the bible is your style guide). It’s a reference guide to help promote consistency, not uniformity. The guidance offered in a style guide should be viewed as principles, not rules.

While most people think of an editorial style guide as simply a long list of spelling and grammar conventions (a la the Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook), it can actually be much, much more than that. A well thought-out editorial style guide can be a representation of who you are, what you stand for and what you want your audience to feel and think when they hear your name.

That’s a powerful document.

Why do You Need an Editorial Style Guide?

But wait, don’t we have a brand identity manual and culture guide to deal with all that fluffy corporate branding stuff? Why do we need another document to tell us that we’re friendly, engaging, and helpful? 

Well, does your brand identity manual give you actual advice on how to communicate that in presentations? When emailing clients to give them bad news? When writing a blog post or a tweet or a whitepaper? An editorial style guide serves to “unpack” all of these vague terms and give examples of what that means in real-life, day-to-day situations. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re website says that you value partnership and collaboration. If the actions (and words) of your team members don’t actually convey that, than it’s all just a lot of hot air.

An editorial style guide is an important tool in helping make sure that everyone in your organization adheres to the overall content and messaging strategy of your brand. While you could have one editorial gatekeeper in charge of reviewing and proofing every piece of communication that goes out the door, it’s much more cost efficient to train everyone in your organization before they start creating content.

Team members may have their own unique style of writing and communication (which is fine), but you should also encourage them to do their best to tailor their communications to represent the values and key messages that you want your company to stand for.

How Will an Editorial Style Guide Help You?

Your “organization” only becomes a “team” when it has the ability to work together to pursue a common goal. If your goal is to make sure that the messages your audience receive are consistent with your brand messaging, an editorial style guide will help you:

  • Learn how to communicate the core brand messages and values that help differentiate your company from other organizations (what makes you different, unique and compelling?)
  • Improve your written communication skills by learning the basic principles of good writing across different channels (how to win friends and influence people).
  • Help promote consistency in all communications, from the smallest details to the largest messages (from punctuation to presentations).

Defining Your Message Architecture

Before you can begin promoting consistency, you must figure out what messages you want to communicate to your audience. Is your brand irreverent and edgy, or are you professional and conservative? Are you known for your no-nonsense approach or are you comfortable being a bit silly and off-the-cuff?

Be careful, though. Don’t confuse defining your messages with copywriting. You’re not writing a tagline for your website or creating your brand positioning statement. Think of this as high-level messaging that will inform the copy and communication that you eventually create – including taglines and positioning statements.

To give you an example of what I’m talking about, here is Brighter Collective’s messaging architecture:

  • We’re Confident: We immerse ourselves in our client’s organizations to truly understand what they need to achieve their goals.
  • We’re Supportive: We share our knowledge and expertise to support our clients in making the changes they need to adapt their business and position it for sustainable growth.
  • We’re Thorough: We take the time to understand our client’s challenges in their entirety.
  • We’re Responsible: We create big-picture strategies grounded in the little, day-to-day details because we know that a strategy is only useful if it’s executable and scalable.
  • We’re Enthusiastic: We love what we do. It’s that simple.

This is what we want our audience to feel when they think of us. Sure, every organization wants to be thought of as thorough and responsible. But maybe there are characteristics they want to highlight that better align with their brand strategy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t thorough. It just means it’s more important for them to be known for being [x]. Creating a successful messaging strategy is about prioritizing the most important messages and articulating them in a clear way.

What’s Your Tone of Voice?

Now that you know what messages you want to convey, the next step is to determine the best tone of voice to use to communicate them.

What is Tone?

Tone isn’t about what you say; it’s about how you say it…

And how you say something usually depends on how you feel about what you’re saying.

When you’re communicating verbally, it’s easy to express how you feel about what you’re saying through the inflection, pitch, loudness and intonation of your voice. In written communications, it’s often harder to convey the appropriate tone for each situation. This is why you should never have an argument over IM :(

Yes, it’s true: WRITING IN ALL CAPS CAN SEEM LIKE SOMEONE’S SHOUTING AT YOU

<sarcasm>But it could just be that their Caps Lock button is broken</sarcasm>

When writing, your tone can be influenced by:

  • Your choice of words
  • The details you include, as well as those you leave out
  • The sentence structure you use
  • How you address your reader

What is Voice?

In contrast to tone, Voice has more to do with the personality of the author – who is talking. While we all have different ways of thinking about the universe and expressing how we feel, when you’re writing on behalf of your organization, it’s helpful to think of your it as if it’s a person - what would they be like, how would they talk, what would their voice be?

This is important because people gravitate to personalities that have a unique voice and perspective.

Examples of unique voice:

You hear unique voices every day. Here are some extreme examples:

  • “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my arse.” – Christopher Hitchens
  • “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” – Kurt Vonnegut
  • “All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand.” – Steven Wright
  • “Please do not use any of the above to guide you. These are just examples of how words and sentence structure can be used to convey a unique voice.” – Management

You should always strive to provide a consistent voice and tone in your written and verbal communications. Whether you’re writing an email, blog post, conference presentation or speech, try to keep in mind that the key messages outlined in the messaging architecture should serve as the foundation for all communication.

Tone of Voice Template

So how do you go about figuring out what your tone of voice is? A common template for outlining your brand’s tone of voice is:

[Positive Adjective] but not [Negative Version of that Adjective]

For example, here is an example of a tone of voice:

  • Authentic but not sentimental or folksy
  • Confident but not arrogant or aggressive
  • Intelligent but not condescending
  • Eager but not annoying
  • Casual but not laidback
  • Intentional but not rigid

The next step is to take each of those and describe exactly what it means. Here’s how we describe how to be authentic in your communications:

  • Write how you would talk to a good friend.
  • Use plain, natural language. Don’t use a complicated word when a simple one will do.
  • Avoid corporate buzzwords or jargon.
  • Omit needless words. Always look for ways to cut down the length without losing the meaning.
  • Don’t use too many adjectives and modifiers. Show, don’t tell.

Example of authentic communication:

“We don’t speculate. We roll up our sleeves and do research using a variety of tools, including social listening software, lots of data and, yes, even books.” 

Example of inauthentic communication:

“We like to think outside the box in order to synthesize learnings and provide actionable insights. By leveraging industry leading cross-platform solutions, our dynamic, experienced team of visionaries is able to deliver high level mission-critical analysis and best practice recommendations designed to help empower you to take your business to the next level.” 

Other Items in Your Style Guide

There are plenty of other things that you may want to include in your editorial style guide, such as:

  • Scripts or elevator pitches for how to describe specific services or aspects of your business
  • The correct usage of phrases or words that are commonly used in your industry
  • Basic fundamentals of web writing and email communication
  • Information on who your audience is and how to tailor your message based on who you’re communicating with
  • Those ‘boring’ grammar and spelling lists I described above.

Whatever you choose to include, just make sure that it’s not overwhelming and full of stuff nobody will read. You want your team to refer back to it on a regular basis, and making them wade through pages and pages of stuff isn’t going to help.

Conclusion

Sure, your clients/customers/prospects will probably never see this stuff, and that’s ok. But hopefully they’ll feel it; in everything they find on your website; in every interaction they have with your staff; and with every experience they have with your brand. And that’s what consistency is all about. Getting each member of your team to work together to present a united front to the world.

If you need some helping figuring out what your message and tone of voice are or putting together an editorial style guide of your own, I'd be glad to help!

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