Imagine going to a meeting in your best business suit.
On first glance it looks presentable enough, until you notice one arm is shorter than the other. The buttons are different. One leg has a cuff, the other doesn’t. From the back, the suit is different color.
In business attire, as in business communications, consistency is everything. The way your organization handles all the intricacies of writing says a lot about you. Is your organization a polished and professional, dapper MadMen type that inspires confidence, or do you just throw things together?
A Style Guide is the Operations Manual for Writing
Brand Guidelines and Style Guides are completely different things. Most large organizations have Brand Guidelines. They are largely useful to designers since they talk about logos, colors, sizing, images and brand use.
A Style Guide makes decisions about the myriad ways words can be spelled, capitalized and used depending on the location of your business (Canada, US, Europe) and the audience/culture you’re trying to reach.
For example, do you:
- Use PM or p.m. or pm
- Capitalize “President” or lowercase “president”
- Spell it “Color” or “Colour”
- Write out numbers like “thirteen” or use the numeral “13”
- Use “and” or “&”
- Prefer metric measures (300 kilometers) or imperial measures (200 miles); and is it kilometers or kilometres anyway?
Where to Start?
When you hire a professional writer, they’ll often ask if you have a Style Guide. If you don’t, they’ll try to make their own informal one by looking at your website (or is it web site?) and marketing materials. If your spelling is all over the place, a pro should tell you and try to help you create some consistency.
But the real solution is to build your own organization’s (or is it organisation’s?) Style Guide. The first place to begin is either:
These guidebooks answer basic style questions depending on your audience. But there are exceptions. Many of my Canadian clients choose to write to AP Style because their client base is the US and they don’t want to confuse people with words that are too Canadian: such as “colour, organise and kilometre."
Then there are more specific guides such as:
They have fascinating (well fascinating for writers anyway) debates on the most vexing language usage, such as the use of “over” versus “more than” in copy – which, frankly, grates on me like sandpaper whenever I see it used incorrectly. Phrases such as “Over 60 Billion Served” are not beautiful things. Sorry, McDonald's.
“Over” is a spatial relationship. You put things over the doorway. What they really should write is “More Than 60 Billion Served”. Because “more than” is a numerical relationship. Sure, ad copy breaks rules. But keeping some rules, and a little consistency, is a good thing.
A writer cares about this stuff. Probably far more than you’ll ever want to. That’s why hiring a pro can make a real difference to the kind of image you present to the world.