Table of Contents
What is a content style guide, and why is it important?
A content style guide is a document that outlines how an organisation or brand should communicate. It helps you keep your messaging and tone of voice consistent across teams and platforms.
Content style guides allow you to present a unified vision of your brand to the public. In turn, this can help grow brand awareness and reinforce brand identity. In fact, companies with strong brand identity and consistent tone of voice can sometimes be recognised within just a few words. Think of Old Spice’s tongue-in-cheek campaigns or Innocent Drinks’ informal, quirky tone of voice.
The best guides show content creators, copywriters, marketers, community managers, translators – really anyone working with your brand – how you want to sound and provide specifics, such as how to refer to the company, its products, numbers, currencies and so on.
How to create a content style guide
- Define your target audience and target markets
Where do they live? How old are they? What do they do for work, and in their downtime? What sort of products and services do they use? This is about giving your target audience more detail so you can understand them and their motivations better.
- Understand how your target audience communicate and how they expect you to communicate
Which language (and language variant) do they use? How do they speak? Which platforms do they use? What do they expect from your company? This is where you establish the way your target audience communicates and how they expect you to communicate.
- Think about how you want your brand to sound
Bearing in mind what you know about your target audience and their expectations, think about whether you want to meet those expectations or stand out by doing something completely different and unexpected. This is where you’ll sketch out your brand voice and tone – more information on that to follow.
- Put it in writing, along with examples
Put the information about your target audience, brand voice and tone into a content style guide that can help anyone that uses it understand who your company is and how you speak as a brand. Include specific details and examples to show how the guide can be applied in practice and avoid any confusion.
Content style guide must-haves
Which language variants or dialects do you want to use? Deciding which markets you want to target will help you choose. But remember, while many speakers of a specific local variant can understand the ‘standard’ language, or other dialects or variants, that’s not always the case.
Plus, in many languages, readers can quickly tell which language variant a piece has been written in. And if it’s different from their own, readers can feel that it’s not written for them or addressed to them, which can make your marketing less effective. Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Portuguese are just a few examples of languages that have significant differences in grammar, spelling and syntax across variants. Discover the differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese.
If you’re targeting users across different countries, you’ll need to consider whether you want to adapt, or localise, your content accordingly. For instance, do you just want to use American English on your website or would you like to have a different domain or sub-site for your British clients featuring UK English? Specify your choice in your style guide, and if you’ll be communicating in different languages and variants, refer to the localising your style guide section.
Voice and tone
To establish your voice and tone, think of three adjectives that define your brand, as if you were describing a person. Also think about your target audience, how you want them to describe you and how they’d expect you to communicate. This will help you decide whether slang, jargon, or contractions should be used or avoided.
Here are some examples of adjectives you could use to describe your brand:
An effective way of describing your brand voice is to explain what your brand is and what it isn’t, as we’ve done for TAGS below:
|We are:||We are not:|
|Positive||Negative (for example, we don’t share mistranslations or complain about clients)|
Formality, contractions, slang and jargon
Once you’ve decided how formal or informal you want your brand to come across, it can be helpful to get specific and demonstrate how this will affect the way you write.
For example, in English, do you want people writing for your brand to use contractions, such as ‘we’re’ ‘you’ll’ and ‘isn’t’, or do you prefer to spell them out as ‘we are’, ‘you will’ and ‘is not’? Meanwhile, in other languages, including Portuguese, you have to make a choice between using the informal or formal form of verbs.
Consider if you’re happy for your brand to use slang. What about industry or technical jargon? Or would you prefer to avoid it?
Company and product names
Include a section about how your brand and products should be referred to so that names are used consistently. This can help avoid confusion and even legal complications.
Numbers, dates and currencies
How do you prefer numbers to be written? What about sums of money and dates of the year? It may seem like a trivial decision, but using numbers inconsistently can be distracting and cause confusion.
In English you might choose to provide guidance along these lines:
- spell out the date (UK English style) where space allows, i.e. 18 January, 2022
- use the abbreviated UK English standard form of DD/MM/YYYY where space is tight, i.e. 18/01/2022
- for monetary amounts, use EUR and USD before the figure, i.e. €1,000
- use a comma separator any number 1,000 and over
- write out numbers one to nine, but write numbers above 10 as numerals
Wordlist and common mistakes
For words that have more than one acceptable spelling or that are frequently misspelt, it’s useful to create a wordlist to set your preferred way of using them in your brand content. Username, URL, website, WiFi, email and organisation are some examples of words that are spelt in more than one way in English.
Where there are choices about how to use punctuation, it’s helpful to define your preferences. In English for example, this might include the use of capitalisation, the use of italics and hyphenation and the use of the Oxford (or serial) comma. It could also include punctuation with bullet points and the use of the em or en dash.
Abbreviations and acronyms
Do you want your team to use abbreviations in customer-facing copy? And if so, which abbreviations are acceptable? Maybe you’re happy with ‘etc.’ and ‘wifi’ but not with ‘COP’ and ‘atm’.
Accessible and inclusive language
For anyone working on your content, it can be really helpful to provide guidance about how to write inclusively, particularly when it comes to topics like ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and disability. In English for instance, you might like to ask people to use the gender-neutral singular pronoun ‘they’ rather than using ‘he/she’, and specify whether people should use people-first or identity-first language.
Information about writing for accessibility is also helpful. This could include things such as using plain language, descriptive links and alt text. Mailchimp’s guidance on writing for accessibility is a great example.
The Conscious Style Guide is also an excellent resource for information on writing about topics as diverse as ability and disability, age, socioeconomic status and using plain language.
General writing guidance
It’s a good idea to include some general guidance on writing style, perhaps something like:
- avoid long sentences
- choose the active voice over the passive voice
- avoid using clichés
- know the text purpose and the angle you’ll take before you start writing
Also, if you know your text will be translated, you may want to incorporate some best practices when writing for translation.
Localising your content style guide
If you’re going to translate or adapt your content – or write new content from scratch – for different markets, then you’ll need to factor this into your content style guide. Because just as those writing the original content need guidance to create consistent copy in the right tone, voice and style, so do the translators who are recreating the text for a different market.
There are two main approaches to choose from:
- One main content style guide, with notes
This approach is great for different variants of the same language. You can have one main style guide, with information on how specific elements might change by market. For instance, you could use a table to show how the guidance applies in Brazilian Portuguese on one hand, and European Portuguese on the other. Or you could include a specific section about how the guidelines should be used for different countries.
- Different content style guides
Another option is to create different style guides for different countries and languages. So you might have your Japanese style guide and your Portuguese style guide. This approach is helpful for countries and languages that are quite distinct, as the guidance will be applied in very different ways.
Thinking of localising your style guide to the Portuguese market? Don’t hesitate to get in touch, I’d love to explain how I can help, and why it’s worth the investment