How to Create a Company Style Guide That Employees Actually Use

Joseph Wildey
Jan 12, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

Every company can benefit from a style guide. Style guides help employees communicate clearly, effectively, and uniformly. But style guides require planning and effort, so you may be wondering if they’re really worth it, especially if your business is still small or just starting out.

First, it’s helpful to understand what a style guide is and is not. (Note: This article focuses on writing style guides and does not explore how to create visual style guides, also sometimes called brand style guides. The latter is more focused on visual aesthetics, logos, and colors and help keep a company’s brand identity cohesive and uniform across applications and use cases.)

A writing style guide is a written insurance policy of sorts taken out against sloppy mistakes that could cost your company in the long run. This is an especially important consideration if your company interacts with the public via press releases or even social media posts. Even internal communications like emails should be consistent so your company speaks with authority and one voice.

As the Harvard Business Review observed in an article on how poor writing can cripple a business, “[c]lear leadership, expressed in writing, creates alignment and boosts productivity.”

That said, a company style guide is not a magic wand that will improve the quality of your employees’ writing overnight. However, it is the foundation you’ll need if you hope to grow your business.

A company style guide, when done right, can create unexpected benefits across your organization while helping new employees get up to speed on the nitty-gritty details.

With all that out of the way, here are some pointers for how to get started.

Size (of the Company) Matters

Large companies often employ individual staff or entire departments to manage communication, including writing and editing tasks. These companies task these individuals or groups with maintaining the consistent look and feel of all written communications.

You often don’t notice the companies that do this well — clear and consistent written content is, by design, inconspicuous. Microsoft is a great example of a company whose writing style guide is so well designed and trusted that it is used by editors, writers, software developers, and marketers across businesses and industries.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

If you already work for one of those well-oiled behemoths with it all figured out — great. If not, read on.

Without a style guide, companies with more than a handful of individuals or multiple offices will likely struggle with maintaining a uniform look and feel across written content.

The reality for many small- to medium-sized companies is they often lack the budget to employ a dedicated staff member whose primary responsibility is reviewing written communications. Instead, this task often falls to individual employees, which means results can (and often do) vary.

An especially small company with a few people who work together often may get by without a style guide. However, without a style guide, companies with more than a handful of individuals or multiple offices will likely struggle with maintaining a uniform look and feel across written content.

You and your clients may start to notice inconsistencies in your deliverables. Questions will arise. Eyebrows will raise.

Does any of this already sound familiar? If you answered yes, then a company style guide can help you.

How to Choose a Style Manual as the Basis for Your Style Guide

Most company style guides are based on one or more well-known style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, The Gregg Reference Manual, or The Associated Press Stylebook (often called the AP Stylebook). These manuals each cater to slightly different audiences.

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Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

The Chicago Manual of Style is widely respected and referenced across multiple fields and professions. First published in 1906 and last updated in 2017, it’s a comprehensive manual with a humanities bent — as opposed to technical or scientific. Its exhaustive coverage of writing and grammar issues makes it the first stop for many editors and writers alike.

The Gregg Reference Manual is similarly respected but less well known. This manual has a business bent, with sections devoted to formatting interoffice correspondence and memos. Its practicality proves useful in professional settings, and it includes detailed visual depictions of its recommendations.

The AP Stylebook is used by journalists, bloggers, and other media organizations. (It’s also a fan of causing a ruckus on Twitter.) Almost all newspapers use the AP Stylebook, though many also have their own house style that supersedes the AP Stylebook in select instances (which sometimes causes confusion).

Selecting a style manual to inform your company style guide shouldn’t require too much agonizing.

To be sure, myriad other style manuals exist, especially for more technical fields like software engineering, but these three manuals are among the most commonly encountered.

Selecting a style manual to inform your company style guide shouldn’t require too much agonizing. Often, the choice is made for you by seeing what others in your field are doing (e.g., if you’re a journalist or blogger, then you should probably select the AP Stylebook to start).

If you’re at an impasse and can’t decide, then start with The Chicago Manual of Style, which is comprehensive and can be adapted to suit most companies’ needs.

How You Customize Your Company Style Guide Makes All the Difference

You could stop here once you’ve selected a style manual from the list above. However, style manuals won’t reflect your company’s unique business or brand.

A style manual’s rules on capitalization, for example, might conflict with your company’s favored capitalization practices for your products or services. To address these concerns, you can choose your own preferred practices and enshrine these in your style guide.

Your company may also have a few individuals attuned to inconsistencies as they crop up. These people are your friends. Fear not the grammar guru or persnickety pedant.

For large, established companies, most of these practices are practically codified into law. For small- to medium-sized companies, arriving at a list of these dos and don’ts requires more time and can take on an organic quality, growing in sync with the company and its culture. The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” applies here.

Your company may also have a few individuals attuned to inconsistencies as they crop up. These people are your friends. Fear not the grammar guru or persnickety pedant.

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Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

If your company is actively developing a style guide or wants to soon, then empower these employees by requesting feedback from them on what your company could do better. What may appear nitpicky to some now could make or break a deal with a potential client later. Develop a list of problem areas, which may be as basic as hyphens or as ethically fraught as plagiarism and trademarks.

As the list grows, decide on your style guide’s categories and an organizational structure. You may find your employees have mastered the fundamentals of writing but use myriad bullet point styles and punctuation techniques, in which case you’d want to mention bulleted and numbered lists in your style guide.

Next, solicit input from a smaller group of employees to help select a “best” option from the commonly encountered uses and inconsistencies across your company. Include the final selections in your style guide and label these “best practices,” with the understanding that specific situations may require a departure from the style guide’s recommendations.

Many company style guides also list commonly used words or phrases unique to the business or organization. Words or phrases are often listed alphabetically so employees can quickly find what they’re looking for. Examples may include product names, individual names or titles, and acronyms.

Ideally, your finalized style guide should also include a preface or introduction. This is especially useful if the style guide is given to employees when they start at your company since it can provide important context on its use and purpose within your organization.

Learn How to Market Your Company Style Guide and Become Its Biggest Publicist/Evangelist

Distributing a company style guide is often its own art form.

Do you print copies and provide these to new employees? Do you host your style guide on your company’s intranet (e.g., SharePoint) or on a wiki?

There’s no right answer here. In practice, the answer depends on the idiosyncrasies and habits of your company’s employees.

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Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash

If your employees favor paper (a favorite of many lawyers), then consider printing your style guide and distributing a copy to each current employee and new employees when they start.

If your employees shun anything printed and are accustomed to consuming a diet of electronic messages and reading materials, consider making your style guide available electronically only. This reduces wasted paper and makes it easier to update your style guide behind the scenes — and more frequently than you would or could with printed copies floating around.

Once available to employees, the finalized (it’s never really final) style guide should be periodically revisited and revised. Subsequent revisions are often much easier than starting from scratch and can be as simple as adding new words or phrases as inconsistencies arise during the course of your work.

In the end, your employees will be more inclined to read and commit to memory an engaging style guide. If your company culture isn’t too formal, don’t shy away from humor and do use a human voice in your style guide. (Microsoft has derisively labeled the opposite of human voice “robot speak.”)

Finally, don’t forget to have fun. Company style guides may seem boring, but they’re great ways to bring together people at your company who might not otherwise interact. In the end, both your clients and employees will benefit from clearer, more uniform content, and that’s something to cheer.

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Joseph Wildey

Written by

I write about consumer, transportation, technology, and workplace trends. Connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/josephwildey/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

Joseph Wildey

Written by

I write about consumer, transportation, technology, and workplace trends. Connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/josephwildey/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

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