It’s easy to see why a company needs standards for engineering, distribution, and customer service. Making sure employees, clients, and customers know how you do things and, more importantly, assuring them of a certain level of consistency is essential to building, maintaining, and growing any sort of business.
Less obvious, but just as important, are standards of verbal style, and because they’re less obvious, and as a result less universal, recognizing their importance can end up being a valuable marketplace distinction.
Every corporate culture is different, but the one thing they have in common is that they are all fundamentally verbal. We build, communicate, and embody those cultures in words, whether it’s the memos send back and forth to develop it, the town halls we build to disseminate it, or the training we give our customer-facing staff, it all comes back to the words.
It follows then that words are important, and that the way we deploy them plays a defining role in how the company is perceived, both internally and externally.
So you’re going to need a style guide.
Whether it’s printed, digital, or both, your style guide will act as the corporate verbal bible. Canada has an odd hybrid spelling system, somewhere between the US and the UK, which gives us labour (instead of labor), but analyze (instead of analyse). Creating a master list of pertinent words and their spellings is step one. There are also words that people just find hard to spell, and if your business uses them often, or even occasionally, this can be a problem. Apparent, believe, calendar, definitely, existence, fluorescent… there are a lot of potential missteps. Some spellchecks will catch some, but only in certain software packages, and with more business being done by mostly spellcheck-free SMS these days, it helps to have them collected in one spot.
But perhaps most important is the phrases, the terms the company has decided it will use to describe certain things in certain situations. You may want to sound especially business-like and use phrases and words like “at this time,” “reach out,” and “utilize,” or you may want to come across more causally and say “now,” “get in touch,” and “use” instead. You may want one style for internal communication, another for B2B, and yet another for customer communications. The process of creating a style guide should be consultative and collaborative, using what’s known about how language works and putting it together with how your company does.
You’ll also want to nail down the words and phrases used to describe the company and its products and services. Apple, for instance, at least until recently, highlighted the uniqueness of its iPhones and would never allow the products name to be used in the plural (like I just did). Defining styles of engagement with customers is also an important part of any style guide. Disney, for instance, instructs its theme park employees to construct their responses to guests so that the operative word is “yes”; many organizations’ technical support workers are instructed to always begin their responses with a variation of “I can certainly help you with that.”
Think of a style guide as an instruction manual for your corporate culture, both as a reminder to long-term staff, and a training tool for new hires. Done well, it can give employees not only facts and advice, but a sense of mission and engagement. A good style guide can be the single most important tool to keep your company on track.