How a style guide can transform writers into communicators

How a style guide can transform writers into communicators
May 19, 2014 Beth Nyland

Jen steps out of a conference room and scans the open workspace for a quiet spot to check messages. She notices two members of her team across the way. She can see they are embroiled in debate about a document on the laptop screen on the table between them.

“They must be working on the proposal,” thinks Jen. “I knew they would throw themselves into this project. I’ll wander over and see what’s on their minds.”

The two co-workers do not notice Jen’s approach.

Nearing the pair, Jen sees Mark’s forehead is wrinkled with concern, and Barb is pointing at a list of bullet points. “They must be discussing the key messages, or wrestling with the call to action,” she supposes. She is proud of their passion.

Finally, at arm’s length from the conversation, Jen hears Mark pleading, “But Barb, that’s just not how I do bullet points. I never capitalize the first word in a bulleted item, unless it’s a complete sentence. These are just phrases …”

Should we focus on punctuation, capitalization, and grammar?

Details are important. Writers who miss them lack credibility, coming off as careless and unprofessional. For many readers, an error or inconsistency is grounds for the delete key. (“If you can’t get the basics right, then how can I trust your message?” 

Business writers should invest time, attention, and passion in the message.

When teams collaborate on communication, we want them debating not commas and capital letters, but strategic content. What are we trying to say? What motivates our target reader? How can we get that reader to take action? How will this message be received? 

Turn writers into strategic communicators with a style guide.

Style guides remove questions and doubts and resolve differences of opinion, so we can focus on what’s really important: the message.   Implementing a style guide is not difficult. You could simply select an existing resource such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook. No effort required.   But for more impact—and greater buy-in—why not engage a small, in-house team to produce a guide tailor-made to your organization?

  • Cover the basics of grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics by brainstorming pet peeves. Discuss and agree what will be “correct” for writers in your organization. Will you capitalize job titles? Punctuate items in a bulleted list? Use the Oxford comma
  • Customize the guide to your brand, mission, products, and services. Define tone, word choice, and precise language to use when representing your organization in writing.
  • Share the guide with everyone who writes for your organization (and who doesn’t, really?). Don’t just dump it on the intranet and send a link. Explain why quality and consistency matter. Show writers what’s in the guide, and teach them to use it.
  • Keep the guide fresh by updating and adding regularly. Even The Chicago Manual of Style changes every year. Assign ownership of the guide to a person or team, and establish a schedule and process for revisions. Invite writers to submit suggestions for keeping the guide relevant to your organization’s work, industry, and readers.

→ Need help? Email me. I’d love to guide your team through this process. ←

Then watch how the communication conversations change.

No more sparring over capitalization, emotional outbursts about bulleted lists, or wars over serial commas. When you notice two writers in a heated debate about a communication, you can be confident they’re wrestling with the message, not mechanics.

Imagine you are assigned to help write your team’s style guide. What grammar or punctuation “nit” will you address first?




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