Updated April 2022

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Content style guides are like the potato mashers in your cutlery drawer. You know it’s there, it peeks out to say hi when you open the drawer, but you rarely use it. (Apologies to any potato masher lovers out there.)

But style guides should be more like your spatula or peeler — something essential that you use every day. Style guides are a critical part of content governance. Governance across the web is so vital because we want our users to have a consistent experience throughout our digital properties.

A style guide ensures that your brand’s presence is consistent and recognizable across all channels.

What should a content style guide include?

Your brand style guide needs these important sections, at a minimum:

  • Style and formatting
  • Voice and tone
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar and spelling
  • Brand guidelines

I lay out clear brand guidelines, including the 10 essential elements of a style guide. And if you already have a style guide, dust off the covers, crack it open and make sure it contains these elements. Feel free to add any that you’re missing. Style guides are living documents that need frequent updates.

Ready to spatula-tize your style guide? Let’s go.

The 10 Essential Elements of a Style Guide

1. Your brand’s story

Before diving into the details of how to write for your organization, make sure the guideline users understand your brand. What does your company stand for? This section should cover:

  • Positioning
  • Brand values
  • Mission
  • Vision
  • Purpose

Nemours Children’s Health does this with flying colors. Their brand guidelines explain these bullet points and their brand narrative. They also explain why these details matter, as an effort to “encapsulate the strategic vision of the organization and the meaning behind Well Beyond Medicine. The guidelines provide context and a meaningful, emotional connection between Nemours and all stakeholders.”

2. Grammar rules

Most corporate style guides use short paragraphs to direct writers to other style guides for grammar and punctuation rules. But there are basic grammar rules that people ALWAYS get wrong — even professional writers. So include three to four pages on some basics instead of sending writers elsewhere for direction. For example, include the differences between commonly misused words like:

  • Affect/effect
  • Who/whom
  • Bad/badly
  • Complementary/complimentary

And make it clear how your organization spells “healthcare”: two words (health care) or one word (healthcare). Call it out in the guidelines, so everyone is on the same page.

3. Actionable examples

Bring the grammar guidelines to life by adding real examples. Write out a sentence in the unacceptable format, then include a correct version. Our Aha Media style guide includes tangible examples. These sentences ensure our writers have clear direction on what we mean by each grammar rule.

Example:

How to turn a simple series into a bulleted list:

No: When you come for your evaluation, you will meet with your team, including

cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, interventional cardiologists and cardiac anesthesiologists.

Yes: When you come for your evaluation, you will meet with members of your team, including:

  • Cardiologists
  • Cardiac surgeons
  • Interventional cardiologists
  • Cardiac anesthesiologists

4. Punctuation

Punctuation can sometimes be a matter of style, with no right or wrong way. For example, explain the Oxford (serial) comma and when to use the em dash and en dash. Give your content creators clear direction, so any writing that comes from your brand identity is consistent. And if your brand follows a particular writing style, such as AP Style, call that out within the style guide. Writers can turn there for clarification, details or other questions.

This is how UCLA Health explains the use of em and en dashes in their brand style guide:

Em dash (—) and en dash (–) — An em dash is roughly the length of a lowercase letter m and is generally used to replace colons, commas, hyphens, semi-colons and parentheses. Our style includes a space on either side of em dashes.

  • Example: Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center — an academic medical center in Los Angeles — is respected around the world for research and patient education.

An en dash is roughly the length of a lowercase letter n and is typically used to denote a span of time or in the place of a colon to create compounds (see example below). Follow these guidelines:

Use em dashes:

  • Abrupt change: To denote an abrupt change in thought or an emphatic pause.
  • Series within a phrase: When a phrase that otherwise would be set off by commas contains a series of words that must be separated by commas.

Use en dashes:

  • To create compounds: For example, the California – Mexico border.
  • To denote a span of time, if space is limited: For example, Monday – Thursday or 9 – 11 am. In all other cases, use “to”: Monday to Thursday.

5. Brand identity

You may think that branding guidelines (like design and use of logo) belong in a separate document. But I believe you should bundle both written and design style elements. Marketing has become an increasingly versatile workforce, where digital practitioners are often responsible for writing, graphic design and website maintenance. Because of this, branding guidelines within a traditional content style guide have become the norm.

At a minimum, this section should include the brand’s:

  • Logo usage
  • Color palette
  • Typography (acceptable fonts and sizing)

6. Voice and tone

This section is important for establishing and maintaining a consistent brand personality, yet so overlooked. Knowing how to write a redirect page versus a sign-in page are two different talents. Style guides can help with this by saying, “This is how we say it” and “This is NOT how we say it.”

Here’s an example of voice and tone rules within a style guide:

Write like this …

  • Fresh perspectives and insights
  • Playful when contextually appropriate
  • Plainspoken and clear
  • Natural

… not like that.

  • Off-brand or trivial conversations
  • Too cheeky or unprofessional
  • Corporate sounding
  • Too casual

In one style guide I wrote, I explained why content shouldn’t compare the organization with a competitor. Instead, I described how to elucidate the positioning to differentiate your organization without being forceful or inelegant. Sometimes, what NOT to say is just as important as what TO say.

7. Channel distribution guidance

How do you personify your brand’s voice and tone in 280 characters? Well, it had better be in your style guide. How many social media properties are you currently managing? 5? 6? 11? Include distinct instructions for each one. For example, does your brand allow you to say, “Will we C U there?” Note it in the style guide.

8. Naming conventions, titles, degrees

Since I write so much in the healthcare space, I can’t tell you how many times within the SAME biography I have encountered MD and B.A. Are you sticking with periods or not? What about when a link to a page on the website says, “The Program for Highly Functional Children,” but the page title says, “Your Gifted Child”? Consider creating a cheatsheet for naming conventions. They’re often a glaring mistake when used incorrectly.

Nemours Children’s Health does this well in their brand guidelines document. They explain how to correctly name their master brand (Nemours Children’s Health), as well as:

  • Different regions (Nemours Children’s Health, Delaware Valley)
  • Clinical departments (Nemours Children’s Orthopedics)
  • Locations (Nemours Children’s Hospital, Florida)

9. Customer segmentation and target audience description

So many organizations have customer segmentation information, but they don’t bring those customers to life. Give them names, occupations, salaries, families, vacation spots and hobbies. Connecting to an actual persona rather than data on a page helps writers and publishers envision who they’re talking to. Knowing who you’re creating content for encourages more engagement.

You can see the power of personas and audience understanding for yourself. When we created personas for Geisinger Health System as a part of their editorial toolkit, its website and social media channels saw explosive growth. See our process and the full results in the case study.

10. Last published

Style guidelines change often. Even the widely used AP Stylebook is updated and republished every two years. And if your content style guide follows the principles of AP Style, you’ll need to update it at least that often, too.

Revamp and distribute your style guide once a year. Set a reminder on your calendar to review it during a certain month of the year. (Maybe during a slow season, if you have one.) Put the last published date on the cover and every other page too. That tells people they are working with the most current version.

How to Create a Brand Style Guide

Creating brand guidelines is one of the most important steps to take before producing new content. And it’s essential if you’re working with a content marketing agency or freelance writers and editors. Invest time, energy and resources into creating it the right way the first time.

Follow these steps to create a content style guide:

  1. Research and collect brand guide inspiration from other sources, like our examples above.
  2. Draft an outline of key areas to cover in the content style guide.
  3. Create a list of stakeholders to include in a brand guidelines conversation, such as:
    1. Marketing and communications team members
    2. Staff with deep understanding of your audience, like customer service reps or patient advocates
    3. Leadership, including the CEO or president (if applicable)
  4. Gather the stakeholders and discuss the main components of the content style guide, including voice and tone, brand story and audience.
  5. Write the brand guidelines.
  6. Distribute your style guide to the marketing and communications workforce within your organization.
  7. If your team isn’t professionally trained writers, explain how to use the style guide, why it’s important and how to access it (shared drives, Intranet, Google docs, printed once a year, etched on stone tablets, etc.)
  8. Revisit and refresh the guidelines every year.

I can’t emphasize the importance of a content style guide enough. (Can you tell??) But if the thought of creating brand guidelines overwhelms you — yet you know you need them — my team can take the weight off your shoulders. We can manage the entire process for you, including interviewing key stakeholders, and create the brand guidelines that make you proud.

Contact us for more information about creating your content style guide or learn about our other healthcare content marketing products and services.

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