• Lindsey Roffe

Business communications: it’s all about style

Updated: Jun 16

I love to talk with my clients about their ‘house style’. And I don’t mean getting the low-down on whether they live in a swanky apartment, Victorian terrace or luxury barn conversion. That might be overstepping personal/professional boundaries a little.

What I’m talking about is their company house style and whether there is a resource to provide guidance to staff on written communications; preferences on tone of voice, spelling, punctuation and formatting.

An editorial style guide sets a standard and will help present an organisation as professional, confident and credible – and what business doesn’t want that?

Correctness vs consistency

But it’s tricky with the English language as there are so many rules, variations and possibilities.

Inconsistencies are more likely to be seen when a business has multiple staff and suppliers writing and sharing information on its behalf. They each have their own individual writing style and will present information differently. Take the examples below:

  • Organization vs organisation, focused vs focussed

  • Noon vs 12pm

  • 15% vs 15 per cent

  • BBC vs B.B.C.

  • Chief Executive vs chief executive

  • ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ vs Oxford English Dictionary

Inconsistencies like these can be jarring and distracting and will interrupt the reader’s concentration and engagement with the content.

First and foremost, company communications need to be correct. But they also need to be consistent.

Do away with confusion

Introducing a style guide isn’t so much about laying down rules but clearly setting out the company’s style choices to ensure brand consistency.

Think of all of the communications distributed by an organisation; annual reports, social media posts, news releases, website content, advertising and lots more. And with so many communication channels available to businesses now, I’d say a bespoke house style guide is more important than ever.

It eliminates editorial confusion and in the long run will save staff time and effort too. Instead of asking colleagues or looking back on old documents (which might be incorrect anyway) it’s much easier to provide one place to look for the definitive answer.

Of course it’s impossible to cover every aspect of language usage in a style guide, but it can certainly help to clarify the areas where queries most regularly crop up within a company.

Style guide considerations

Here’s a list of some of the considerations when putting a style guide together:

  • Abbreviations How and when to use abbreviations and acronyms

  • Capitalisation How to use capital / lower case letters for a person’s title, names of departments, committees and groups

  • Company terminology How to refer to departments, qualifications, programmes and project names within the business

  • Dates and times How to reference time: 7.00am, 07:00, 7am or 7 am Dates: 9 March 2020, 9th March 2020, 09.03.2020 or 09/03/2020 Decades: 1980s, ‘80s or eighties Spans of numbers and years: ‘from 2018 – 2020’ or ‘from 2018 to 2020’

  • Figures When to spell numbers and when to use numerals, whether to use a space or a comma for numbers over 1,000 and how to start a sentence with high numbers Ages: twentieth or 20th Measurements: millimetres, centimetres, metres or mm, cm, m Money: One thousand pounds, £1000, £1,000 or £1k Percentages: %, percent, or per cent

  • Formatting How to display headings, titles of works, bullet points and use of fonts

  • Names, titles and references How to present job titles and forms of address Book titles, journals, reports, films, TV shows

  • People How to refer to people – he, she, their How to use inclusive language when referring to gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation and ability

  • Punctuation How to use full stops, apostrophes, hyphens, dashes, brackets, commas, full stops, colons, etc Ampersands: ‘and’ or ‘&’ Quotation marks: single or double

  • Spellings and word forms British or American English spellings: ‘ise’ / ‘ize’, ‘our’ / ‘or’ Whilst or while, amongst or among, upon or on, thus or so

  • Tone of voice Using the right tone and communicating in a positive way in line with the organisation’s brand values and beliefs.

I should say here that a style guide is not a design guide and would recommend that information on use of company logos, colour palette and fonts should sit in a separate branding guidelines document.

Checklists rock

When I’m editing or proofreading a document or publication I create a detailed checklist to follow, even if a style guide exists. This is a table / list of editorial decisions made on spelling, abbreviations, punctuation, hyphenation and formatting to guarantee that all-important consistency.

As well as checking the words, it’s also my job to look over the typographical consistency. Chapter titles, headings, tables and illustrations, captions, paragraph indents and use of colour – these all need to be consistent throughout the document too.

My training in editing and proofreading taught me to appreciate the value of checklists. They keep me focused and make it easier to spot discrepancies. I have a good memory and an excellent eye for detail, but when editing or proofreading a lengthy publication you can’t rely on the human brain to remember every single style decision – especially as every company has its own unique house style.

The four Cs

To summarise, a company’s written communications should aim to be:

  • Consistent

  • Clear

  • Confident

  • Credible

A well-written house style guide will certainly help to achieve that.

So, a final piece of advice from me on style guides. Once you have one do keep it up to date. I’d recommend reviewing it at least once a year to make sure it reflects current terminology and is fit for purpose. It should be a flexible document that evolves and develops with the organisation.

Creating a tailored style guide and maintaining it takes editorial expertise and time, but it’s most definitely worth it.

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