As I explained in my previous article, a company style guide is a written insurance policy of sorts taken out against sloppy mistakes that could cost your company in the long run.
Despite its incredible value and importance, a company style guide is waging an uphill battle when it comes to effectiveness.
First, it requires that employees read something that might not interest them. That’s always a challenge, especially with a style guide, which has a titillating score that ranks it somewhere below an employee manual.
Second, a company style guide is static, which means it just sits there (in print or PDF) with its value derived solely from employees who actively use it.
Larger companies can probably avoid some of these style guide pitfalls by making its use and application the primary responsibility of a single person or department.
Smaller companies face more challenges in this regard, especially if the company’s ethos is “everyone wears multiple hats.”
While you want your employees to know the basics and be effective communicators, you probably don’t want your most valuable (read: expensive) talent poring over a style guide in search of answers. Their efforts are probably better directed elsewhere, especially if they’re more senior or billable.
Creating a role or department that specializes in enforcing your company’s style guide addresses the first problem. These individuals will read the style guide from start to finish and commit it to memory. However, this specialization does not solve the static problem, which still plagues users.
What’s a company to do? How does a company take something static and make it dynamic? The answer lies within software.
Software Saves the Day
A couple years ago, I was nearing the “soft launch” date of my company’s first style guide.
I had put months of effort into this guide, meeting with project managers, accumulating helpful examples and anecdotes, and poring over larger style manuals while selecting best practices to include.
My obsession over getting everything “just right” was motivated by a desire to see more employees align their writing styles and, in turn, make my job as editor easier.
When launch day arrived, I had printed several copies in addition to making the style guide available on our company’s intranet. I typed up an announcement email, held my breath, and pressed send.
Much to my chagrin, the collective reaction was crickets. At the time, I would have preferred vociferous disagreement or objections over the silence that greeted me at launch.
In retrospect, I made a critical mistake. I had assumed that because the style guide was my passion project, it would be the subject of much interest and discussion among my colleagues.
A few months went by, and it became clear to me that despite my messaging and communication around the style guide at launch, most employees just weren’t using it.
A common interaction would go as follows:
Me: “I noticed you didn’t use the Oxford comma, which our company style guide recommends.”
Other Person: *blank stare* OR “We have a style guide?”
Rather than give up and throw in the towel, I started googling solutions to my problem. I had a hunch that software could probably make my job as editor easier, but I didn’t know what I was looking for.
During my research, I found Intelligent Editing, which is a company that has developed a Microsoft Word add-in tool called PerfectIt.
PerfectIt is a robust piece of software right out of the box. But where it really shines is on the customization front.
PerfectIt allows users — who pay an annual license fee per copy, with some discounts available for volume purchases — to select from myriad options to align the software’s consistency-checking functions with a company’s style guide.
Does your company always favor periods at the end of bulleted items? Does your company favor numerals for 10 and above?
PerfectIt gives its users incredible customization options. The software can be programmed to notice these inconsistencies and others across users and documents and align them with your company’s style guide.
One of the most useful functions is PerfectIt’s ability to find certain words or phrases and prompt users to make a change while providing a short explanation/reason.
In practice, this means the software can be programmed, for example, to catch instances of incorrect product name references. The brief style note also helps users become better writers by explaining why the change should be made or referring users to your company’s complete style guide.
The best part is that PerfectIt allows users to create custom style sheets (electronic files that can be programmed, saved, and shared) for other PerfectIt users.
If only one person at your company is responsible for developing and maintaining your written style guide and PerfectIt style sheet (me in this case), he or she can share the custom style sheet with other PerfectIt users.
This allows anyone with a PerfectIt license at your company to dynamically apply your company’s style preferences to documents in real time.
Related, PerfectIt is an incredibly useful tool when applying another company or organization’s style guide to your documents. This is often required at larger consulting firms, which do work with a range of clients and public agencies, many of which maintain and require consultants to use a specific style guide that they provide.
Rather than committing an entirely new style guide to memory in these cases (a huge undertaking), PerfectIt can do most of the heavy lifting by being programmed to align with an external style guide. Once programmed, these new style sheets can be shared with other PerfectIt users.
Software Complements (But Does Not Replace) a Company Style Guide
In my experience, PerfectIt can’t (and shouldn’t) replace a written company style guide.
For one, a traditional style guide is still a great desk reference for new employees and employees looking to improve their writing. Much of its value is derived from the narrative it crafts around your company’s writing best practices.
PerfectIt also works best when it includes notes or references to a complete company style guide. While the software can include a brief note or explanation alongside a recommended change or action, its tutorial power in these situations is limited.
For instance, your company name may have several abbreviations/shorthand references, but only one correct reference. While PerfectIt can find these incorrect variants, it probably isn’t the best way to educate your employees as to why there is only a single preferred name. For that, you’ll want to refer employees to your complete company style guide.
Finally, PerfectIt’s ability to educate is limited. Users can certainly infer these best practices through the changes it makes to their documents, but it would be like trying to teach someone how to spell by using Microsoft Word’s built-in spell-check function.
I, for One, Welcome Our New Software Style Guide Overlords
Software like PerfectIt does have some drawbacks, a few of which relate to its technical prowess.
Its thoroughness and ability to run numerous tests in sequence can slow it down significantly on longer documents (an issue that the company dramatically improved on in its latest version, released in June 2019). Running it on select sections in sequence can help with this issue.
The software also requires some level of judgment among its users, which may inform your company’s decision about how it’s deployed.
For example, does it make sense to give multiple employees a license or only those employees responsible for maintaining the brand/communication style? Should everyone receive a license or only those who produce client-facing documentation?
Finally, PerfectIt is an incredibly powerful aid, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) replace a good editor. I often compare it to having advanced driver-assistance features in a vehicle; these still require the human driver to pay attention and observe the rules of the road. Not doing so risks a wreck.
Ideally, software like PerfectIt can improve the speed of editing and encourage more people to apply the critical aspects of your company’s style guide. However, it doesn’t replace the need for someone to view writing through the critical lens of an editor, especially for more complex or technical content.
By pairing a company style guide with software like PerfectIt, companies of all sizes can improve the overall accuracy and consistency of documents while maintaining their brand identity across multiple use cases and applications.