A style guide displays your commitment to customer support and creates a more efficient process for your employees. Check out my last article, 4 ways a company style guide makes your life easier.
This article outlines topics to consider for your company style guide and how to deliver it to employees. I provide specific action steps, links, and a checklist to make the process as easy as possible.
After reading this article, download the Style Guide Checklist for specific questions to consider as you outline each point.
What’s in a style guide?
A style guide is shaped by your particular brand “voice,” target audience, and typical communication channels. An everyday “quick reference” style guide outlines the essential language, grammar, formatting, and branding choices you expect writers to follow. You may also develop an extended style guide with detailed direction for particular content types. You can develop one comprehensive style guide if the approach makes sense for your audience (e.g., all writers need both sets of information at all times) and the topics are easy to navigate and clearly organized.
A style guide for everyday use outlines your company’s standards for:
- message, tone, and voice
- logo, fonts, colors, photos or screenshots
- grammar, punctuation, capitalization
- language, including company-specific phrases and words
- page formatting (online or printed), including references to applicable templates
- links to applicable templates, master artwork, and other resources
- useful internal or agency contacts
Depending on your company’s needs, your style guide might also include:
- instructions for setting up fonts, colors, etc. in typical programs
- examples of style guide standards on company documents
- FAQ for design and writing questions and answers
- in-depth standards for specific templates and document types (online articles, how-to guides, help pages, emails, product release notes, social media, etc.)
How do I develop a style guide?
1. Select a general style guide resource. Each industry has specific style guides that are commonly used. For example, technical writers generally abide by the Microsoft Manual of Style or Chicago Manual of Style for general guides. Select the style guide appropriate for your industry, and use it as a reference point while you develop a company style guide.
2. Outline your company-specific preferences. Download the Style Guide Checklist to evaluate what information to include in your company style guide. If you want to document a standard but don’t know the best approach, consult the general style guide you selected in Step 1, or reach out to your industry contacts to discuss best practices. Focus on defining particular language and formatting preferences that employees aren’t likely to know or understand without instruction.
A note about rules. Since most people resist restrictive and elaborate rules, focus on creating standards that matter most while allowing flexibility when possible. For example, when you describe your brand messaging, you can clearly document general concepts and trust employees to express it in their own words so it feels more authentically expressed. Clarify when you want total compliance with the rule versus when there is flexibility within guidelines. Your writers will appreciate understanding expectations, and your published pieces will have a cohesive voice.
3. Document your guidelines. Draft your content, then get feedback from writers and other stakeholders (marketing, leadership, etc.) to clarify confusing or missing content. Strengthen your draft and get feedback until you have a final version. I typically outline topics in a Word document with clear section headers, but any authoring tool for drafting content is fine.
4. Plan your change management process. Change is hard—especially when it affects writers’ everyday processes. Establish a plan to help writers see the benefits of using a style guide in their content development process. As you develop a plan, consider these questions: Who should know about this style guide? How will you communicate the value of the style guide to writers and stakeholders? Is the style guide accessible and easy to navigate when it’s announced? Will you host a meeting to get everyone on the same page? Do you have leadership and manager buy-in to support this change and address concerns? All writers and stakeholders should understand expectations around the style guide to successfully change the communications development process. Advanced strategic planning can help support a smooth transition during a significant change.
5. Deliver your content. The way you present and deliver your style guide depends on how writers need to access the information. You could deliver the style guide to writers as a PDF file or through an employee-facing or public website. Consider all of your options and decide which approach keeps your style guide accessible while also protecting proprietary information. Your writers are most likely to use the style guide if you make it easy for them—ensure it’s simple to access, frequently updated, logically organized, and searchable with keywords.
6. Plan to revise your style guide. The style guide is a living document and bound to change over time. Establish a system for incorporating revisions on a regular basis. You may want to link an email or survey in the style guide and encourage employees to submit change or update ideas. Consider gathering a core style guide team and set up regular meetings to discuss revisions and ensure the style guide is as effective as possible. Significant revisions could impact published communications, so always think strategically about your changes.
Are you ready to get started? Download your free Style Guide Checklist to cover all your bases before sending that style guide to others for feedback. You can find helpful content to copy and paste into your style guide in the next article, Style Guide Text to Copy, Paste, and Use Now.