I have a love/hate relationship with content style guides. I know how important they are for consistency (especially if you have a large team, or work with outside agencies), as well as ensuring quality. However they can fall by the wayside and often more time goes into making them than following them.
I’ve shared some tips on how to put together a content style guide that’s genuinely useful, and then crucially, how to make sure it actually gets used.
- Don’t make it too long – this isn’t just about the fact that people won’t read it all, it’s more that it’s really difficult to bear so many things in mind when you’re trying to write content. When you’re attempting to take in too many directions, often the overall quality of the copy suffers. If your style guide has to be substantial, perhaps consider a one-page summary that less frequent writers can use.
- But do be specific – specific instructions such as ideal sentence length, the format you write the date in, or whether or not you hyphenate certain words, are the easiest parts to follow, because there’s no element of interpretation, and because these are generally things you can go through and check at the end without clouding your head and killing creativity while you write.
- Use examples – I cannot stress this point enough. Tone of voice in particular is so open to interpretation, and I’ve personally used so many style guides that were so vague everyone used them to justify their own personal style. Include particular words that people should or shouldn’t be using, but also include examples of sentences that fit your guidelines and some that don’t – ideally for every point you make.
- Have different instructions for different audiences – if you have different audiences you target – perhaps B2B and B2C, or you target different sectors, and you want to adapt the way you speak to these audiences, then it’s important to be explicit about how people do this. Again, leaving things open to interpretation rarely ends well.
- Have different instructions for different uses – similarly, it can be helpful to guide people on how to adapt their content when writing for different purposes. For example, writing content for a brochure or the company website, might look different to how someone outside of the marketing team writes a social post. This might feel contradictory to the first point of keeping things brief, but as long as you signpost it well, your team can simply head to the right section, which brings me on nicely to the next point.
- Pay attention to your formatting – just as with any piece of content, if you want people to actually read it and absorb the information properly, you need to think about how you structure and format it. Huge chunks of text aren’t helpful, but bullet points, subheadings, and bolding key points can be.
- Check for conflicts – I’ve used style guides that contradict themselves before, and there’s nothing more frustrating. When you’ve finally got your document together, don’t forget to put yourself in the shoes of a user and test that these points actually make sense alongside each other.
- Get input from those needed early on – when someone senior makes changes once your guide is already in use and you have different versions or updates after it’s been created, then you’ve got no hope of expecting people to remember it, and the reason you created it – for consistency – is what suffers most.
- Instil behaviours for using it – you could have the best copy guidelines in the world, but if you simply send it round once and expect people to start using it, prepare to be disappointed. In my experience it’s better to sit a team down and discuss it, and people can raise questions and iron out any issues early on. Repetition is also key; regularly make sure it’s on everyone’s agenda. Print it out and have it to hand, encourage people to save it on their desktops. You may also want to appoint someone to be in charge of ensuring the guidelines are being met.
- Do it at the right time – the need for content guidelines increases as you grow but the best time to introduce them is before this happens. When your business is already scaling up, or you’re introducing third parties, it can be more tricky to keep on top of. Creating and introducing a content style guide before this stage gives you a chance to make sure it’s fully embedded for when you actually need it.
Content style guides don’t have to be painful and stifling. Keeping them as simple as possible and putting a little more energy into creating patterns of behaviour to make people use them, is usually much more beneficial long term.