Secrets to Creating a Content Style Guide People Will Use

If “design is the silent ambassador of your brand,”* content is more vocal. You probably have a brand guide, but do you also have a strong content style guide?

Creative teams are notorious protectors of visual branding. They define a clear structure for the use of color, typography, imagery, logos, iconography, taglines, and such. A good brand guide supports consistency across all asset types your organization creates, whether digital properties, collateral, social posts, socks, or otherwise.

But what about the words that you use to tell your stories? Can you ensure that same level of consistency? My last two employers had strong visual brand guides when I joined, but their content guidelines were less defined. In fact, one didn’t have a style guide at all despite having been in business for a decade.

The Importance of Content Style Guides

The goal of a content style guide is to keep your content organized, consistent, and error-free. By outlining the rules around writing, spelling, punctuation, tone, and other elements, style guides can help content producers create consistent and clear content.

Attention to the details of voice and tone, grammar, punctuation, and content structure shows readers that you care about how you share information with them. Consider it showing up for an interview with your shirt tucked in instead of one with salsa splatter on your sternum.

“Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”

Lynne Truss, Author of eats, shoots & Leaves

Considering the number of people who contribute to content creation, thin guidelines leave a lot of room for inconsistency. Is our voice formal or conversational? Do we capitalize each word in the display type? How do we use our own product names? How do we format dates and times? Do we use serial commas?

And writing isn’t everyone’s strong point. Just like I can’t be trusted to cook a gourmet meal, a product manager isn’t necessarily comfortable writing for a buying audience. As a subject matter expert for the product, they may have all the information the content needs, but writing about it requires a different skill set.

Two Secrets to Successful Content Style Guides

Style guides don’t have to be boring, but they usually are. Some of the best feedback I’ve received for a style guide includes:

Content guidelines are useful only if people follow them. A content style guide doesn’t have to be a dry litany of rules and regulations. Create a boring or pedantic style guide, and it will gather virtual dust. Create one with a sense of personality that entices people to read, absorb, and actually use it.

I’ve created boring, by-the-book style guides. And when I did, I typically had more work to do as an editor and more questions to answer from writers. If a style guide is as interesting as the ingredient panel on a breakfast cereal box, why would anyone bother reading it? I wouldn’t.

Here are two of my secrets to authoring style guides:

Secret #1: Make the examples fun.

Show how your guidelines work by creating relatable examples that escape the context of your technology or industry. I have a habit of using critters, food, and popular culture. If I’m talking about people, I’ll often use company execs.

Secret #2: Add comics.

Why put nerdy grammar comics in style guides? If nothing else, your audience is more likely to scan through the whole thing to find and read them. And hopefully, they’ll absorb bits and pieces of information that help when they’re writing. People definitely remember more if they laugh along the way.

What to Include in a Content Style Guide

In addition to brand-specific guidelines, there’s value in outlining basic grammar and formatting constructs to give people a reference to follow. But if you go too far, you may wake to a nightmare of Winston Churchill telling you, “If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law.”

To create an effective content style guide, you need to understand your target audiences — both your readers and your writers — be clear on the purpose, and keep it focused. I usually follow an outline that includes the following sections:

I update guides at least twice a year, scribbling notes on a PDF as I go to add things I miss, fix my mistakes 😳, keep the word list up-to-date, sneak in new comics, and incorporate feedback from people who use it.

A great content style guide can help you establish brand consistency, drive efficiency and engagement, and increase user satisfaction. But first, people have to read it. Have fun.

* According to Paul Rand. And it’s hard to argue with the designer behind logos for IBM, UPS, ABC, and countless other organizations with more than initials in their names.

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