Implementing an organizational style guide to improve clarity, quality and consistency

By Kara Kienzler, director of production services, Illinois Association of School Boards

Okay, I know, communicating is what we do. But, it’s not what 89 percent of the people in my organization are experts in — and they still do an awful lot of communicating on a daily basis.

A year ago, a colleague and I took on the challenge of implementing a style guide for our organization — one that would be useful as a quick reference for staff, easily accessible, and be on ongoing source of general guidance.

This was our approach:

1.      Explain what a style guide is and why we need one

A style guide is a common, agreed upon set of guidelines for written communication. Just as we have guidelines for our logo, our words and editorial style choices are an extension of branding. Many common words and phrases can be written in different ways and still be understood and correct (email, e-mail and Email). Spelling and punctuation change over time as language develops. Different subject areas functionally require different communication styles, but a style guide distills these differences to ensure clarity, quality and consistency.

A style guide is not meant to dismiss a communicator’s voice or diminish creativity. It’s not being graded. It’s not meant to complicate things, although it will seem to at first. It’s also not a writing guide (but at the end of this process you may have a good one of those, too.)

2.      Work with other departments

Ask for input from staff outside of your communications department. Who you enlist to help you will depend on a few factors. Who does the most writing? Who reviews materials before publication? Who cares? (No, really — who cares?) Anyone in your organization who cares about language, clarity, consistency and good product should be involved in developing your style guide. We had several staff members who wanted to be involved in style debates, while others simply wanted to be told what the correct way should be. We had some lively conversations about commas and apostrophes.

We started with The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, aka AP Style. We have AP Stylebooks available for reference in both our offices.

Then we tossed out the rules of AP Style that didn’t fit our organizational preferences, determined points of style that fit our collective work and developed our organization’s style guide from that. Our style points include:

  • Information Standards such as date and time formatting, numbers, states, etc. which appear often in our work.
  • Capitalization and Punctuation uses that come up frequently and/or are frequently asked of the communications staff (for example, when to use Title Caps).
  • Frequently Used Words and Phrases that demonstrate the ease of use for our users as well as the dynamic nature of the document
    • decision-maker, decision-making
    • fundraiser, fundraising (no hyphen)
    • internet (lowercase), website (no cap, one word, and no hyphen)
    • social media (capitalize Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google and even Googling)
  • Notes on Format and Font Styles to keep us consistent in the look of our published work. Identity Standards are also included.

We also had to make a decision on whether to use the Oxford comma, aka the “serial comma.” For clarity, we chose the Oxford comma — not my personal preference, but completely necessary for our organization’s writing style.

3.      Continue our work as style goddesses

We introduced our plan at a staff meeting of multiple organization departments and received overwhelming support. (This is when we were named “style goddesses.”) Within three months we had draft style guide and we presented it to all staff a few months later.

Our style guide is not written in stone. It is intended to be a living, growing document. As new questions arise, titles are added, language evolves or we simply change our minds, we will update the live document that is housed on our intranet.

It’s impossible to see everything before the send button is clicked. Having set style points has helped raise the level of consistency in our organization’s written and printed material. And it has certainly raised the level of awareness by staff. More questions and documents are making their way to our department for style review, and we aren’t complaining.

KaraKienzlerKara Kienzler is director of production services for the Illinois Association of School Boards and the immediate past president for AWC Springfield. Is there an area you can provide professional tips and tricks in our next newsletter? Email Ideas for future tips/tricks are welcome, too!