Finally, at a high-level, your content will be better across the board and more effective at attracting the right people. That’s what it’s all about, right?
(Psst! We’re going to spill the beans on exactly how you run a content style guide workshop in the next chapter, so you can make sure your content style guide will do all of these things.)
What Doesn't Go into a Content Style Guide?
Given that a content style guide is essentially a tactical, instructive manual of how to write like a particular brand, it can be tempting to put everything in there.
Of course, you shouldn’t do that. That’s a bad thing.
Brand Messaging Is Not the Same as Content Style
For example, at IMPACT, we do include a slide with a brand messaging strategy primer within the content style guides we create for clients:
An adapted example of a brand messaging slide from an IMPACT content style guide.
However, your content style guide should not be where your full brand messaging strategy lives.
As you can see in the image above, this is merely an excerpt that links out to a full brand messaging strategy, which is a massive document all by itself.
If a client doesn’t have one, we may put a few notes here but, more than likely, we won’t include it at all.
While messaging notes or a link to a full messaging strategy should absolutely be included as a reference in your style guide, you need to remember one thing:
Your brand's messaging strategy and your brand's content style are not the same thing.
That said, you really can’t have one without the other. Brand messaging and content style go together like peas and carrots. Or Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Going back again to that old adage of, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” your messaging strategy is the WHAT and your content style is the HOW.
Put another way, your style is the packaging and polish you put on your strategic messages, not the strategic messages themselves.
(That’s why we typically have our clients go through a messaging strategy workshop first. Then they go through a content style guide workshop.)
It’s kind of like when people look at the HubSpot marketing automation platform and expect it to be their inbound strategy, in addition to being the mechanism by which their strategy is executed. In reality, HubSpot is only the latter.
You still need to research and document your own buyer personas, develop a messaging strategy for each of those personas, create your own strategy for content, email, conversion offers, etc.
The same holds true for your content’s style.
Your content’s style isn’t your blogging strategy. It won’t tell you what your messaging should be -- again, that’s an entirely separate process. It also won’t tell you how to win the internet.
But having style is essential to executing an effective blogging strategy, guaranteeing your messaging is packaged for maximum impact, thus empowering you to win the internet.
What Else Shouldn't Go in Your Style Guide?
There are three other areas you may feel tempted to address in a style guide, but you shouldn't...
While your contributors may often be responsible for choosing images for their own work -- we do that at IMPACT for our blog -- notes about visual preferences (like natural photography with bright colors or no text on featured images for blogs) should live in a visual style guide.
Fonts, colors, and branding rules are, again, visual, so they should have their own home. Sometimes brands bundle this kind of information together along with visual notes like the ones mentioned above, but sometimes they’re separate.
Content Layout Best Practices
Some of you might disagree with us on this, and that’s okay. But obvious best practices like, “Don’t make your content look like a massive word wall; break up your text with headings, lists, etc.,” don’t really belong in a style guide.
However, if you have rigorous rules like, “paragraphs should never exceed X sentences,” or “We only use bullets for lists, never numbers,” you would put them into a content style guide.
Where the first example is something your writers should already know -- or, if they don’t, should be addressed through education at an editor-to-writer level -- the second two examples are hyper-specific brand preferences that no one would know intuitively.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Gets It
As we’ve talked about already, your content’s style is only one piece of the brand storytelling puzzle.
So, how do you organize all of it, if you shouldn’t put it in a single document?
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s brand identity presentation is a great example of what you should do.
UNC-Chapel Hill Identity by UNC Creative
We love their approach.
Yes, the UNC Creative team developed exhaustive brand guidelines about everything -- logo, visuals, typography, stationary, color guidelines, content, etc. Given the complexity of their organization and its size, history, and tradition, however, that shouldn’t be a surprise.
You may not go into this level of detail, but what you should take note of is how they built a centralized home for all of those style rules that’s not only organized, it’s also compartmentalized.
So, while you may choose to keep your style confidential -- for example, stored on a company intranet or in an invitation-only Google Drive account shared by your team -- take note of how everything is segmented.
You could probably put all of these items into a single document, but no one will want to use it. Ever.
What Does a Content Style Guide Look Like?
Again, it’s going to depend on who you ask.
(I know, that's an annoying answer. I'm sorry.)
If you’re just starting out and not ready to take on something super complex, a one-page document with some basics might be the best approach until you get more comfortable.
In fact, going back the example from our friends in North Carolina, their voice and writing guide is really short:
Their messaging strategy is simple, so it makes sense to have it featured here.
We also love how they reference their core values.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s MailChimp’s content style guide. It's also public-facing, but much more comprehensive.
It has lots of different sections to sink your teeth into, including writing about people, pointers for email newsletters, writing for accessibility, and more.
Still, MailChimp nails it by including a little section called “TL;DR” -- a cheeky bit of internet shorthand that means, “too long; didn’t read,” for those unfamiliar.
The needs of your brand and the purposes and use cases for your style guide will dictate its complexity.
What You Should Do
No matter what it looks like, your content style guide should be presented in such a way where the important stuff -- voice and tone attributes, style notes, etc. -- can be easily understood and quickly digested.
Your goal is to create a document that your people will want to bookmark (if it’s online) or keep a hard copy of on their desk, so they can come back to it again and again, because it’s such a valuable resource.
What You Shouldn't Do
Do not, under any circumstances, give into the urge to create something overly complex for the sake of it.
Yes, that's so important, I had to highlight it in a different color.
In our experience, some brand teams and leaders are ultimately shocked by how much discussion is required to create a piece of documentation that may end up being fairly straightforward and “simple.” As a result, they try to over-engineer the final product by making it longer, because they equate complexity and length with importance.
In their eyes, if it’s “too short,” it’s probably not enough and/or must be a disservice to the nuances of their brand.
Wrong. This kind of thinking results in content style guides people will never want to use.
No one is going to want to read War and Peace every time they need to write a 900-word blog post, especially if it could have been shortened to the length of a press release and been just as effective in explaining what they needed to know about content style.
Instead, you need to be clear, concise, and direct in your content style definition and direction.
The end result may end up being quite substantial, like MailChimp’s. Or you might end up with a one-sheeter, like UNC-Chapel Hill.
Your content style guide should be as long as it needs to be -- no more, no less.
What IMPACT Content Style Guides Look Like
The template we use at IMPACT for content style guides looks quite long, but it’s still simple and designed to be easy to use.
NOTE: The above example and our downloadable template feature adapted versions of actual results from multiple IMPACT clients. Those examples have been significantly altered from their original forms for privacy and proprietary reasons.
In addition to two slides covering positive and negative voice attributes, and two to four slides defining what we call “tone pillars,” IMPACT content style guides include the following:
Messaging overview and a link to the messaging strategy (if applicable);
Formatting rules, which covers capitalization for titles, headings, and subheadings, as well as lists;
How words are visually emphasized using bold or italics;
Brand-specific copywriting preferences or quirks everyone should follow;
Exceptions to traditional AP Stylebook rules;
Common AP Stylebook rules and login credentials for a client’s AP Stylebook subscription (if available); and
Buyer persona profiles.
Depending on the unique needs of a client, we may also include other optional sections -- for instance, exceptions for social media, core values, how to handle competitor references, or examples of “best in class” blog examples or other types of content.
If you do download our content style guide template, we encourage you to adapt it and make it your own. We believe it’s a fantastic foundational tool on which to build your content style, but don’t be afraid to take it in a different direction.
Exercises #3 & #4: Brand Voice & Tone (30 to 60 minutes)
Through these two exercises, participants will choose positive and negative attributes for their brand’s voice and tone, based on the needs and preferences of their buyer personas.
Purpose of the Exercises
To your participants, it’s obvious -- you’re getting their ideas about what their brand’s voice and tone should be. For you, the facilitator, that’s still true, but there’s a little more to it.
Again, your goal is not to walk away with words you’ll plug into a Mad Libs-esque content style guide template. Instead, you are trying to get them to explain the why behind the words they chose. You may experience some pushback, but that’s okay.
Pushback, in this case, is not a negative; it’s by design.
But in order to understand what we mean by that, you first need to see how it works.
How It Works
The voice and tone exercises are virtually identical.
First, you will pass out this worksheet:
(The only difference between the above worksheet and the one for tone is that the one for tone says “Tone Worksheet” at the top.)
Next, you’ll remind them of the definition for voice and tone ahead of each exercise:
Voice: These are all of the attributes of your brand’s personality; it’s what people should always think about your brand as a reflex, without you having to spell it out for them.
Tone: This is a dynamic element. It’s how you deliver on the promise of your voice. Your tone will be situational and should be adapted to accommodate different scenarios.
Then, you will recite the following instructions, which are (again) identical for both the voice and tone exercises:
“On the following slide there will be a word cloud -- put yourself in the shoes of your ideal buyers and choose the five words you like the least and the five words you like the most, in relation to your brand.”
Bring up the word cloud on the next slide of the presentation deck…
Word cloud for voice exercise.
Word cloud for tone exercise.
Read the directions once more, with the word cloud up on the screen, and then ask if they have any questions.
Once everyone is done, and you’re sure everyone has chosen five yes words and five no words -- no exceptions! -- you’ll have everyone share their answers and the why behind each.
What Kind of Pushback Will You See in These Exercises?
You might not have any, but here are the most common we’ve seen and how to handle them:
Someone wants to change the rules. Either they want to be able to select more than five or fewer. They can’t, they have to choose five for each, and you can’t have multiple words tie for a particular spot. Let them know, however, that they don’t have to rank the words.
Someone doesn’t like the words. They either want to change the tense of a word or use a different (but similar) one they like better in its place. They can’t do that either. They can only use the words presented to them, as-is, but they are encouraged to expand upon their thinking when it’s their turn to share their answers.
Someone wants to know where these words came from. That’s a great question, but you want to keep them focused on the task at-hand, and you don’t want to accidentally influence their choices by pivoting the discussion to the methodology behind the workshop. You’ll let them know afterward.
Again, you might not run into any of these issues -- that’s also okay. It’s not a sign of failure if you don’t push anyone’s buttons.
But if you hear any of these objections, you cannot cave.
You have to enforce the rules.
“Why? Why Can't I Give Them a Little Wiggle Room?”
Getting a reaction in these exercises is by design -- that’s how you get to the good stuff; the real insights that will inform the style guide.
Even if there are no fireworks or real objections, your participants will be forced to explain the emotional decisions behind why they do or do not like certain words.
Yes, they may see a few of these words appear in some form in the end product, but the magic happens through the other words and phrases not given to them that they choose to describe why they feel the way they feel about their selected answers.
That’s why you want people to feel something about the words that they chose.
They shouldn’t be ambivalent when they do or do not like something. They should be passionate.
In fact, we’ve tweaked those word clouds numerous times over the years, sprinkling in and testing different words to ensure we’re creating opportunities for honest discussion and to allow authentic, unfiltered feelings to take center stage.
(For instance, “Lyrical” from the tone word cloud has sparked many a lively debate with our clients.)
Facilitation Tips for This Exercise
Of course, ask clarifying questions.
Has your group has chosen a lot of the same words for the same reasons? No problem, save time by asking subsequent participants (usually starting with the third participant) only to explain their answers for the words that were either unique to them or if they chose the same word as someone else, but for which they had an opposite reaction.
For example, one person might say “controversial” is good, and then later, someone else says it’s bad. In that case, ask them what was different for them about “controversial” that led to a negative reaction.
Encourage those who are shy to share their opinions and don’t let others interrupt them. They should have their chance to shine.
Allow other participants to respond first to the answers of others -- that dialogue can be really helpful for extracting the unfiltered, unguarded intelligence you need.
When taking notes, do so on a single sheet -- a copy of each word cloud will work. Make a mark every time a word is chosen (so you can spot patterns), and take notes on key words, phrases, or ideas that come out.
“Wait, What About the Editorial Style Stuff, Like Formatting?”
Let’s be honest. No one wants to force people to sit around a conference room table and ask people where the commas should go, so that portion of the style guide will not be hashed out during your content style guide workshop.
In Chapter 4, we’ll discuss how you pull that part of your style guide together, but there’s no need to dedicate a part of the workshop to grammar rules and formatting conventions. Just let whomever will be reviewing a draft of your style guide know they will have a chance to review a base editorial style section and make change requests.
Before you get your hopes up, this chapter will not be as instructive or hand-holding as the previous one.
When it comes to “how the sausage gets made” with your style guide, how you pull together your findings into a single, cohesive style guide will depend on two things:
Your personal working style and preferences.
You might prefer to rely on your notes exclusively or you may be someone who will want to listen to the audio recording again, before you start pulling your style guide together. There is no right way to synthesize the data, so do it in a way that makes the most sense for you.
How “scattered” your results were.
In a lot of cases, you’ll still need some serious thinking time to bring it all together, but you’ll probably have a good idea during the workshop about some of the choices that need to be made. We have, however, worked with brands where we had to do more heavy-lifting than usual in the drafting phase based on the results of the workshop.
That’s not a knock on the brand.
We typically see this with new startups, where they’re having these conversations for the first time -- which totally makes sense. Additionally, it’s fairly common with established brands who are pivoting from outbound to inbound marketing for the first time, and they’re not used to having these discussions.
With those two caveats in mind -- whether you’re working with our workshop toolkit and content style guide template or building your own from scratch -- let’s dive in.
Fill in the easy stuff first, like your messaging strategy (if you have one) and buyer personas.
Next, you’ll want to approach your voice and tone.
What’s fun about this is that while the exercises for both were the same in the workshop, the output is quite different for each.
Defining Your Brand’s Voice
Again, your brand’s voice is essentially defining the constants of your brand’s personality. Meaning, this is how your brand should always (and never) be perceived.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that while what you put in this section should heavily influence the creative choices your marketers, copywriters, and others make in content, this is not where you provide explicit, tactical guidance on writing.
Think of this section on voice as table-setting.
You’re laying the foundation for everything else by establishing the boundaries of your brand personality sandbox. You should include specific notes on positive and negative voice attributes that will allow your team to adopt the right mental posture with your brand’s content.
Here’s an example of voice attributes to illustrate what we mean:
These examples have been heavily adapted.
We like to bold key phrases and words that should stick in the memories of those using the style guide, which has the added bonus of making the style guide easy to skim.
Looks easy, right? Don’t be fooled. You’ll find that you’ll need to spend your time with your notes to prioritize the right ideas with the correct wording.
“Wait, how is that enough guidance to convey our brand’s voice?”
Remember, if you feel compelled to write a novel in order to adequately delve into the nuances of your brand’s personality, please don’t be surprised when no one wants to read it.
So, keep it simple.
No matter how you format this section -- our way isn’t the only way -- your goal is to create a moment where the brand comes to life, as if it were a person, and speaks directly to your team to say, “This is who we are, and this is who we aren’t. Period.”
Establishing Your Brand’s Tone
Your tone is how you deliver on the promise of your voice.
Meaning, if you’ve done a good job of defining who you are and aren’t as a brand, you now have to serve that up in the form of a well-defined tone.
In some cases, people create a laundry list of tips, rules, and suggestions for people to follow as they’re crafting content. We believe in doing the same, but we’ve added a little more structure to it by creating what are called tone pillars.
What Is a Tone Pillar?
A tone pillar groups together tactical copywriting and content creation instructions under a larger tonal “theme,” which ties directly back to the story of your brand that you’re trying to convey.
Here’s an example of a tone pillar set, heavily altered for confidentiality purposes:
Your tone pillars should not only be a seamless, natural extension of your brand voice, they should also complement each other.
If you opt to use our tone pillar model, here are the four key components of a tone pillar:
A first-person statement that clearly establishes the theme for the pillar’s recommendations and rules;
A subtitle that establishes why this is important -- typically, why your audience desires this style;
How you effectively craft this tone in your writing; and
And finally, what you shouldn’t do in your content.
There are no rules around how many dos and don’ts you should include, although don’t include rules for the sake of it. Additionally, you can have as few or as many tone pillars as you’d like.
We’ve found, however, that the sweet spot is between two and four tone pillars for a style guide.
Two is a nice minimum, because it allows you to create a balance between two tonal qualities that can be scaled or differently weighted, as needed, depending on context.
If you build out more than four tone pillars, you’ll create confusion. Plus, you’ll run the risk of people tossing your style guide to the side in frustration, because you’re giving them way too much to consider.
If tone pillars seem too complex, don’t panic.
A simple list of dos and don’ts will work fine as a first draft. Come back to tone pillars when you’re ready to create more organization within the structure of your brand’s tone.