You don’t need a voice & tone style guide

The jig is up!

It was a tough call deciding to cut this one loose. We’re just starting to feel bad that you haven’t caught on yet. Every time we propose a voice and tone style guide you say “yes”, and sometimes you say “wow! You can do that?!” Though, to be honest, the thrill is beginning to wear thin.

So the jig is up, got it? You can stop burning resources on voice and tone style guides. Spread the word.

Don’t get us wrong, these style guides are a bit of a windfall for us writers. But you’ve recently taken this trendy deliverable to a disturbingly real level. At first we could barely keep a straight face when you shared that shiny new style guide with the entire company. You touted your newfound commitment to sounding “confident but not cocky” and “fun but not goofy.” Oh man, lol.

And then you started including style guide development in your job descriptions.

uh oh…

Knock it off! The world doesn’t need any more voice and tone style guides.

Simple and clear fun with boldly authentic friends!

Style guides are all about consistency. But the only thing you’ll consistently achieve by telling writers to “use simple words” and “make friends” is contempt.

Snarkiness aside: In what other profession could you get away with telling a specialist in any field to “have fun” and “be playful” without insulting that person?

If you have to tell your writer to omit needless words, not lie, or to be “badass, baby,” then you need a new writer.

These guidelines verge on absurdity when we remove them from the regaled context of a voice and tone style guide.

Yes — there are terrible writers out there who don’t understand clarity or how to use a nuanced, brand-aware tone. Telling them to write clearly and playfully will not help them. You should not hire those writers.

Failure to grok voice & tone

If you’re thinking that the previous selection of LOL-worthy excerpts feels biased toward the satire of this article, you’re right. Not every style guide is a joke. In fact, there are some supremely masterful voice and tone style guides out there. For instance:

But these are the exceptions. They’re the products of iteration, validation, and authority. Take a stroll through the majority of voice and tone guides and you’ll realize that once you cut through the bullshit pie, you’re left with a measly slice of useful content that’s most likely regurgitated snippets of other style guides or Strunk and White style principles.

Skip the style guide and proceed directly to Strunk & White

So why are we burning our resources and reputations on these poorly-executed reference documents? Best guess it that it’s because we don’t spend the time it takes to understand the true purpose of these guides. We sell them as the cherry-on-top of our abilities as a writer or as an incentive for stakeholders to sign off on a project. We’re using them as exploits to leverage our careers rather than as tools to improve brand consistency, efficiency, and impact.

Back to basics

There’s always going to be a moment when someone who doesn’t understand your voice and tone will need to write on behalf of your brand. That’s when a voice and tone style guide should come in. But it doesn’t need to be a huge production.

Yes, MailChimp’s voice and tone style guides (both 1 & 2) are immensely satisfying to read, and they’re practically works of art when it comes to content governance. But shit, they’re massive! You‘ll never need anything that comprehensive! Plus, the contextual relevance of those guidelines is already deteriorating, and I feel sorry for the writers in charge of maintaining such behemoth pillars of voice and tone strategy.

So let’s get back to the basics of a voice and tone style guide. Reinforce your brand messaging with things like clear positioning, a researched target audience, messaging pillars, mission statement, and maybe even a couple user personas. Do these things for everyone onboard, not just your writers.

And when it comes time to ask for words, there’s nothing wrong with cutting to the quick and saying something along the lines of:

“We use the Associated Press Stylebook with the following 7 exceptions.”

How’s that for clarity?


Special thanks to content strategist Scott Beck for his encouragement and insight into this story.