Every business, regardless of size, could use a style guide. A larger business could actually do with several style guides. So what is a style guide? It is a reference guide that is the authority on how information should be presented in a written form.
If you’ve been following our blog for the last couple months, you’d have noticed that we crow on a lot (a lot!) about the importance of using visual elements in training material. But there is no getting away from the fact that some of your training material will have to rendered by text. The written word is after all how we primarily record organisational knowledge and disseminate it.
If you are producing training content like manuals, handouts, brochures and PowerPoint presentations, it is important that the content looks pulled together and polished. Why? Besides the content being legible and understandable to the reader, how your training content is presented speaks volumes about your business. You never get the a second chance to make a first impression.
Take marketing departments, for example. Marketers appreciate that every email newsletter, business card, brochure, press release, and ad they create says something about the business they represent. The first impressions about a business are often based on written communications from the company and their marketing collateral. If you want to position your business as a subject matter expert in your field, your written communications need to be authoritative and not look amateurish (no Clip Art and Brush Script!)
External marketers rely heavily on the use of style guides, but consider that internal
business communications (like your training content) might also benefit from the use of a style guide. Consider that new hires will often make the decision to stay or leave a business in the first three months of their employment. If the training content for your on-boarding program looks like a cobbled together cut-and-paste job replete with contradictions and inconsistencies of style, new hires are going to get the very strong impression that your business just doesn’t have its act together, even if that is not the case.
So, how do you go about creating a style guide for the content contributors in your business. Here are four tips.
1. Consider the Reader
Some businesses will just refer to one comprehensive style guide that covers all the different types of communication in their businesses, while others will have a short guide for each type of document (internal email; PowerPoint presentation; quarterly reporting). Each document will have its own readership. The words and phrases used in a quarterly report will be very different than the diction employed in an PowerPoint presentation used for an induction. Let’s say you have remote teams all over the world. You have one in India, another in the U.S., and a third in South Africa. American English differs quite a bit Australian English, especially when it comes to spelling. The English used in India can be quite formal compared to Australian English. In South Africa, traffic lights are called “robots” and witches hats are called “safety comes”. When developing style guides for the content contributors in your business, make sure to take the different types of readers in account, as well as regional variations in the language.
2. Base the Style Guide on an Existing Style Guide
There is no need to do all the exhaustive research necessary to create an entire style guide from scratch. Many style guides in Australia are based on Style manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers, 6th Edition (Wiley) and the Mcquarie Dictionary. Take from existing style guides what you need to create your own style guide. Also, your business may have its own internal language that reflects the company’s history and culture. Style is all about consistency, so it’s important to list words and phrases unique to your business and examples of how they are to be used. For example, maybe your business culture doesn’t subscribe to the manager/worker paradigm. In your business culture everyone is a “teammate”. You own a cafe franchise. To set yourself apart from your competitors, your cafes doesn’t have baristas, they have “rockin” mocha maestros!
3. Remember: Style is All About How it Looks
Along with appropriate word choices, your style guide should include guidelines related to formatting content. This includes guidelines on fonts, font sizes, the use of charts and tables, captilisation, and the spacing between lines. For fonts, it’s a good idea not to veer too far from the traditional. Some of the more elaborate script can be difficult to read, as the letters can appear to merge into each other. Popular fonts include Arial, Time New Roman, Verdana, and Georgia. You can have two or three different fonts on a page, but no more than that, and they should all be member of the same family. For body text, the font should not be smaller than 11 point. For printed documents titles look good at 24 point, with subtitles at 18 point. For PowerPoint presentations, the fonts sizes may need to be bigger. Specify guidelines related to tables. Three column tables are good for comparing things, while a two column table is great for terms and their definitions. Rules about capitalisation can vary from one guide to another, and there are some rules about proper usage, but when it comes to your business, you can set the rules related to the names you give your products and services. Take the ‘iPhone’ for example, or ‘eBay.’
4. Make Sure the Guide is Accessible
Training content contributors will only benefit from a style guide if they actually refer to one, and they’re only going to do that if they have ready access to the guide. Share the style guide using Cloud-based applications like Google Doc (Drive) and Dropbox. It’s important that someone in the company take responsibility for the style guide. The job of updating the style guide should be theirs alone. This is to avoid every content contributor in the business making changes to the guide, defeating the whole point of the guide.
Style is all about consistency and content looking pulled together. By requiring that your content contributors use a style guide when they write training content, you can be assured that the training content they produce will look professional and polished.
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