Does this ring a bell?
If the answer is yes, then your style guide needs a serious makeover.
Issues like confusing abbreviations, grammar mistakes, and inconsistent capitalization make your copy look lousy and wordy. And you can’t expect workers to take a dull piece of internal communication seriously.
The solution? Have specific writing standards that people can refer to, in the form of a style guide. A style guide makes sure that your communication looks more professional and less like an SMS from a teenager.
Most of all, a style guide gives you a standardized way to make your content more interesting, relevant, and easy to digest. And it doesn’t just help create clear employee communication, but also contributes to shaping a positive brand image. Let’s see how.
What is a style guide?
Consistency in your internal communication content is essential to your brand as an employer. Plus, it ensures that workers can understand your messages easily.
That’s where an employee communication style guide comes in. It’s a document with guidelines for the standardization of your internal communication, including rules for voice, writing style, formatting, and so on.
Not just that. An internal communication style guide excels at solving problems in the writing room. With a style guide, your admins and other content creators won’t have to wonder about the right way to do things every time they work on a piece of internal content. Nor do they need to recall what styles they followed the last time.
A style guide keeps everyone on the same page at all times. And it leads to a shared understanding of internal content creation throughout your company.
Your internal communication cheat sheet
Hopefully, by now you’re convinced of the value of an employee communication style guide. But let’s cut to the chase. We know what you’re thinking. How much effort it’s going to take? And you don’t have the time to create pages and pages of writing rules for your internal messages.
First, you don’t need to create a tome of writing guidelines. Nobody in your company would want to spend hours reading the rules before they publish an internal communication message. An internal communication style guide is supposed to be short and sweet.
Second, there is no need to start from scratch. There are many style guides available for inspiration, including the one we are sharing below. And almost 80% of the guidelines in most well-known style guides are similar. Only 20% varies based on a company’s unique brand personality, voice, and other requirements.
You can simply steal the template and guidelines we are sharing below. Then all that’s left is to figure out what your unique 20% is and change the rules accordingly. Sounds good? Let’s dive into the basic components and pointers of a workplace communication style guide.
The first section of a style guide is the introduction. It explains how to use the guide, what it’s important, where your employees can access it, and other basic details.
The VA.gov style guide, for example, hits on all these points. This results in a warm and convenient experience for everyone, regardless of whether they’re viewing the guide for the first or tenth time.
Principles to live by
63% of employees say they would perform better if their companies articulated values, strategy, and direction more clearly.
A great style guide doesn’t just cover specific rules for workers to follow. It also conveys the basic, high-level principles and reasons behind the rules. This way, the content creators are more likely to make the right call even in situations where the specific guidelines don’t apply.
So this section is about the golden rules everyone must remember when creating content for workers. These may include:
Adhere to the four Cs: Make your internal communication compelling, creative, concise, and conversational. Write in a way to reflect how real people talk to one another. Use everyday words and phrases whenever possible.
Target a specific person: Think of one particular individual in your target audience. Then write like you were talking to that single person. And use words that put the person first, not a disability, age, race, or gender. For example:
- Correct ways to address people: folks, people, staff
- Incorrect ways to address people: guys, men
Be clear and helpful: Break down complex messages into simple, biteable chunks, and share them proactively based on when and where the workers will need the information. They should be easy to find and understand.
Understand your audience: Plan your content before you start putting it on paper or on the screen. As you form an outline, ask yourself:
- What are the key things you want to convey?
- Who is this message for?
- What would the target employees want to know?
- What may be their state of mind when reading the content?
Grammar, punctuation, and capitalization
This is the third key part of a style guide. Of course, you can’t cover all the rules of the English language in a few pages. But you can direct employees to the most important guidelines regarding common errors. They may include:
Sentence case capitalization: Employ sentence case capitalization for page titles, subheadings, text links, and buttons. The exception to this rule is when you’re dealing with a proper noun. Also, using ALL CAPS comes across as shouting. So refrain from capitalizing an entire word or phrase for calling attention to it.
Ampersands: Don’t use ampersands (&) anywhere, whether in the headers or body of the message. Spell out the full construction — “and.”
Contractions: There may be exceptions, such as when writing something pertaining to the law or a warning. But in general, use contractions wherever possible.
- Be careful with common errors, such as confusing “its” with “it’s.”
- Use “it’s” when you mean “it is.” Not “it has.”
- Avoid non-standard contractions such as “should’ve,” “would’ve,” etc.
Commas: Don’t forget to add the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), especially before the word “and” when referring to multiple items. For example:
- Correct: In his award speech, Tom Cruise mentioned his parents, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese.
- Incorrect: In his award speech, Tom Cruise mentioned his parents, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
Accuracy and spelling: Ensure that your content is free from errors. Use a spell-checker to catch mistakes you might have overlooked. And proofread everything before submitting it for publication or distribution.
Writing style and formatting
Style refers to how your workplace communication content looks and reads. It’s hard to read huge walls of text. So in this section, we cover the rules that make the content easy to skim. These rules may include:
Acronyms and abbreviations: Avoid them in most cases. Exceptions can be made when a term is extremely familiar in the general context. For example, terms such as p.m., Mrs., Ph.D., etc. can be used because they are commonly used by most people.
Time and dates: Spell these out using their full constructions. For example:
- Mention a date as March 31, 1989
- Write days of the week and months as Monday, Tuesday, January, March, and so on
- Say noon and midnight, instead of 12:00 p.m. or 12:00 a.m
- Always include days and hours of operation when listing a phone number
Bullet lists: Bullet lists are excellent for making content scannable and digestible. If you’re writing about three or more ideas or concepts in a sentence, use a bullet list instead. And make sure to:
- Capitalize the first letter of each bullet point
- Keep each list item short (not more than one or two lines)
- Use a parallel structure (each point starting with a verb, or with a noun, for example)
Links: Links should feel natural and intuitive. They should show readers where to click, what the click will do, and where it will take them.
- Use descriptive language
- Link the most relevant text
- Avoid making the linked text too long
Headings and subheadings: Use headers and subheads to organize your message and make it more scannable. Breaking up large chunks of text with subheadings makes it easier to read.
A good rule of thumb to check if you’ve done this right is to view your content with only the headlines and subheadings. Hide all the body text. If it’s still possible to understand what’s on the page and know what a reader needs to do, then job well done!
Writing voice and tone
This is the part where the uniqueness of your brand will come out the most. It has more to do with how your content sounds than how it appears to the eye.
The voice refers to your company’s identity, while the tone is the vibe or mood being expressed through the identity. Wherever your company lies in the voice and tone spectrum, it must be clearly articulated.
Use active voice: Using active voice instead of passive constructions makes your employee communication feel more engaging and energetic. For example:
- Correct: We teach data analytics.
- Incorrect: Data analytics is taught by us.
Use first and second person: These constructions pull the reader into your story. And they make you sound more approachable and active. For example:
- Correct: We’ve won the “Best Workplace” award.
- Incorrect: The company has won the “Best Workplace” award.
Keep communication short and to the point: Nobody reads work emails or company updates just for fun. They want to know the most important details as soon as possible. So make your copy as short as it can be without missing key information.
Write how a real person would talk: Good writing is basically talking, but edited. If something you have written isn’t how you’ll say it to your friends or colleagues, change it. It also helps to read your writing out loud to see if this is how someone would say it in person. For example:
- Correct: Blink is a communication app built for frontline workers. It lets your messages reach the entire workforce through mobile phones.
- Incorrect. Every internal message is a crucial asset. Our workplace communication platform helps you extend your reach and get results with access to every frontline worker having a mobile device.
Make it simple, but not patronizing: Always use straightforward, clear language. When you have a choice between an everyday word and a fancy word, use the plain option.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for creating an internal communication style guide. What you should include, what to exclude, and how to write certain messages — all these aspects will vary depending on your company.
But as we discussed, many of the guidelines in the popular style guides are based on universal best practices, and you can use the rules outlined above to save time and reduce your work.
The style is not set in stone. It’s more of a living, breathing document that adapts to the needs of your organization.
So make sure to evaluate everything covered in the style guide on a regular basis, such as once a year, and make it an integral part of your workplace communication campaigns.
Now go ahead and use our cheat sheet to create your first version. Good luck!