Consistency is boring.
Itís not sexy, fun or awe-inspiring. Itís not the coolest new social media channel or marketing tactic. You donít usually win awards or get mentioned on Top 10 lists for consistency. So why should you waste time worrying about whether your social media manager is using the same tone as your copywriter?
Because consistency is at the heart of all successful brands.
While consistently delivering quality and value to your customers is essential, itís often just as important to ensure consistency in the way you†communicate†your brandís message. This is even more important for large organizations that have multiple stakeholders creating, managing and distributing content. With so many different cooks in the kitchen, itís easy for your brand to seem like it has multiple-personality disorder.
So how can you overcome a lack of consistency to ensure that your unique brand personality shines through in every piece of communication?
Thatís right: an†Editorial Style Guide. It may not be sexy. But it†is†good business.
What is an Editorial Style Guide?
For those of you who arenít familiar with one, an editorial style guide is simply a basic manual of general rules and guidance for all internal and external communication throughout your organization.
Itís not a bible to be followed religiously†(unless youíre a church, in which case the bible†is†your style guide). Itís a reference guide to help promote consistency, not uniformity. The guidance offered in a style guide should be viewed as principles, not rules.
While most people think of an editorial style guide as simply a long list of spelling and grammar conventions (a la the†Chicago Manual of Style†or†AP Stylebook), it can actually be much, much more than that. A well thought-out editorial style guide can be a representation of who you are, what you stand for and what you want your audience to feel and think when they hear your name.
Thatís a powerful document.
Why do You Need an Editorial Style Guide?
But wait, donít we have a brand identity manual and culture guide to deal with all that fluffy corporate branding stuff? Why do we need another document to tell us that weíre friendly, engaging, and helpful?
Well, does your brand identity manual give you actual advice on how to communicate that in presentations? When emailing clients to give them bad news? When writing a blog post or a tweet or a whitepaper? An editorial style guide serves to ďunpackĒ all of these vague terms and give examples of what that means in real-life, day-to-day situations. Because it doesnít matter if youíre website†says†that you value partnership and collaboration. If the actions (and words) of your team members donít actually convey that, than itís all just a lot of hot air.
An editorial style guide is an important tool in helping make sure that everyone in your organization adheres to the overall content and messaging strategy of your brand. While you could have one editorial gatekeeper in charge of reviewing and proofing every piece of communication that goes out the door, itís much more cost efficient to train everyone in your organization†before†they start creating content.
Team members may have their own unique style of writing and communication (which is fine), but you should also encourage them to do their best to tailor their communications to represent the values and key messages that you want your company to stand for.
How Will an Editorial Style Guide Help You?
Your ďorganizationĒ only becomes a ďteamĒ when it has the ability to work together to pursue a common goal. If your goal is to make sure that the messages your audience receive are consistent with your brand messaging, an editorial style guide will help you:
- Learn†how to communicate the core brand messages and values that help differentiate your company from other organizations (what makes you different, unique and compelling?)
- Improve†your written communication skills by learning the basic principles of good writing across different channels (how to win friends and influence people).
- Help†promote consistency in all communications, from the smallest details to the largest messages (from punctuation to presentations).
Defining Your Message Architecture
Before you can begin promoting consistency, you must figure out what messages you want to communicate to your audience. Is your brand irreverent and edgy, or are you professional and conservative? Are you known for your no-nonsense approach or are you comfortable being a bit silly and off-the-cuff?
Be careful, though. Donít confuse defining your messages with copywriting. Youíre not writing a tagline for your website or creating your brand positioning statement. Think of this as high-level messaging that will inform the copy and communication that you eventually create Ė including taglines and positioning statements.
To give you an example of what Iím talking about, here is a sample messaging architecture that I helped create:
- Weíre Confident:†We immerse ourselves in our clientís organizations to truly understand what they need to achieve their goals.
- Weíre Supportive:†We share our knowledge and expertise to support our clients in making the changes they need to adapt their business and position it for sustainable growth.
- Weíre Thorough: We take the time to understand our clientís challenges in their entirety.
- Weíre Responsible: We create big-picture strategies grounded in the little, day-to-day details because we know that a strategy is only useful if itís executable and scalable.
- Weíre Enthusiastic: We love what we do. Itís that simple.
This is what we want our audience to feel when they think of us. Sure, every organization wants to be thought of as thorough and responsible. But maybe there are characteristics they want to highlight that better align with their brand strategy. That doesnít mean they arenít thorough. It just means itís more important for them to be known for being [x]. Creating a successful messaging strategy is about prioritizing the most important messages and articulating them in a clear way.
Whatís Your Tone of Voice?
Now that you know what messages you want to convey, the next step is to determine the best tone of voice to use to communicate them.
What is Tone?
Tone isnít about what you say; itís about†how†you say itÖ
And how you say something usually depends on how you†feel†about what youíre saying.
When youíre communicating verbally, itís easy to express how you feel about what youíre saying through the inflection, pitch, loudness and intonation of your voice. In written communications, itís often harder to convey the appropriate tone for each situation. This is why you should never have an argument over IM ūüôĀ
Yes, itís true: WRITING IN ALL CAPS CAN SEEM LIKE SOMEONEíS SHOUTING AT YOU
<sarcasm>But it could just be that their Caps Lock button is broken</sarcasm>
When writing, your tone can be influenced by:
- Your choice of words
- The details you include, as well as those you leave out
- The sentence structure you use
- How you address your reader
What is Voice?
In contrast to tone, Voice has more to do with the personality of the author Ė†who†is talking. While we all have different ways of thinking about the universe and expressing how we feel, when youíre writing on behalf of your organization, itís helpful to think of your it as if itís a person – what would they be like, how would they talk, what would†their†voice be?
This is important because people gravitate to personalities that have a unique voice and perspective.
Examples of unique voice:
You hear unique voices every day. Here are some extreme examples:
- ďMy own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my arse.Ē†Ė Christopher Hitchens
- ďAny reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.Ē Ė†Kurt Vonnegut
- ďAll those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand.Ē Ė†Steven Wright
- ďPlease do not use any of the above to guide you. These are just examples of how words and sentence structure can be used to convey a unique voice.Ē Ė†Management
You should always strive to provide a consistent voice and tone in your written and verbal communications. Whether youíre writing an email, blog post, conference presentation or speech, try to keep in mind that the key messages outlined in the messaging architecture should serve as the foundation for all communication.
Tone of Voice Template
So how do you go about figuring out what your tone of voice is? A common template for outlining your brandís tone of voice is:
[Positive Adjective]†but not†[Negative Version of that Adjective]
For example, here is an example of a tone of voice:
- Authentic†but not†sentimental or folksy
- Confident†but not†arrogant or aggressive
- Intelligent†but not†condescending
- Eager†but not†annoying
- Casual†but not†laidback
- Intentional†but not†rigid
The next step is to take each of those and describe exactly what it means. Hereís how we describe how to be authentic in your communications:
- Write how you would talk to a good friend.
- Use plain, natural language. Donít use a complicated word when a simple one will do.
- Avoid corporate buzzwords or jargon.
- Omit needless words. Always look for ways to cut down the length without losing the meaning.
- Donít use too many adjectives and modifiers. Show, donít tell.
Example of authentic communication:
ďWe donít speculate. We roll up our sleeves and do research using a variety of tools, including social listening software, lots of data and, yes, even books.Ē†
Example of inauthentic communication:
ďWe like to think outside the box in order to synthesize learnings and provide actionable insights. By leveraging industry leading cross-platform solutions, our dynamic, experienced team of visionaries is able to deliver high level mission-critical analysis and best practice recommendations designed to help empower you to take your business to the next level.Ē†
Other Items in Your Style Guide
There are plenty of other things that you may want to include in your editorial style guide, such as:
- Scripts or elevator pitches for how to describe specific services or aspects of your business
- The correct usage of phrases or words that are commonly used in your industry
- Basic fundamentals of web writing and email communication
- Information on who your audience is and how to tailor your message based on who youíre communicating with
- Those Ďboringí grammar and spelling lists I described above.
Whatever you choose to include, just make sure that itís not overwhelming and full of stuff nobody will read. You want your team to refer back to it on a regular basis, and making them wade through pages and pages of stuff isnít going to help.
Sure, your clients/customers/prospects will probably never see this stuff, and thatís ok. But hopefully theyíll feel it; in everything they find on your website; in every interaction they have with your staff; and with every experience they have with your brand. And thatís what consistency is all about. Getting each member of your team to work together to present a united front to the world.
If you need some helping figuring out what your message and tone of voice are or putting together an editorial style guide of your own, I’d be glad to help!