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What’s in a style guide?
People expect other people to be consistent. And because the best brands function like people, people expect consistency there too. Just as our friends are their same reliable selves day after day, so too should your company exhibit one continuous personality throughout your website, emails, and conference booths. A style guide will help you achieve that.
A style guide is, in essence, a blueprint for reproducing your brand’s personality.
Below, you’ll find a style guide for a fictional company that’s intended for you to copy and make your own. Simply copy this template and modify it to represent your own company. We hope this template offers a solid foundation for developing and documenting your own brand’s unique style. And of course, style guides are living documents. You’ll continue to update it as you learn more.
- Audit what’s already happening at your company — gather good and bad examples
- Identify which teams will use it and what their needs are
- Pick a format — Google Docs, PDF, Writer
- Copy the style guide below, edit it, and add real-life examples
- Have a representative from each team review
- Publish and announce it
- Continue to promote and refer to it
- Revisit biannually and update as needed
This section shares our brand personality and how we want to present ourselves as a company.
True.ly exists to help people check their facts
Lots of what you read on the internet today simply isn’t true. It’s stuff that people read online and repeated across the top ten pages of Google until it felt true. But unless it’s cited, it isn’t to be trusted. It’s just an opinion. And when our decisions aren’t based on the truth, they’re not very good. That’s why the fact-checking software True.ly exists. We check your sources to help you and the people you write for make good decisions.
It’s tough work. But keeping the facts straight is something we think truly matters.
Mission and audience
True.ly exists to inspire more critical thinking. Seem grandiose? We don’t think so. Our founder holds advanced degrees in journalism and she’s been helping others think smarter in life and work for over forty years. Today, True.ly’s fact finding software inserts itself right into the key moments when falsities arise—during research—and helps users consciously make better choices. Because, we all want the facts. When we have them, the world’s a better place.
Writers, marketers, salespeople, PR teams, consultants, researchers, and anyone whose reputation matters.
We are cheerful champions for truth. We’re factual. We’re positive. We’re outspoken. We always lead with empathy, and we’re often disarmingly honest. In school, we were the quiet one who always asked the question nobody else thought of. At work, we’re the one to speak up and say “No y’all, this is wrong, and we’re going to take the time to do it right.”
- We’re honest, and sometimes inconveniently so, but we’re never tone deaf.
- We know when to speak and when to listen.
- We’re sometimes silly, but only when pointing out what’s true.
- We never exaggerate. Reality is plenty weird on its own.
- We’re tireless with high standards. (We are software, after all.)
- We’re empathetic to the pressures people feel at work.
- We’re curious about everything, and are constantly verifying things on our phone.
- We love fun facts.
- We’re neat.
- It bothers us when someone folds a book in half.
When we write and we speak, we want others to feel like they’ve been heard. Like what they say matters, and that we’ve taken them seriously. When others speak, we furrow our brow and listen. We want anyone to feel comfortable bringing their problems to us, and confident that we’d never pass judgment — because we wouldn’t. We choose our words deliberately and would never be caught shouting … unless it was to let someone know they dropped their wallet.
Keep it simple
We always prefer a short sentence over a long, stuffy one. Same with words
Front-load the meaning
To be ultra clear, we begin paragraphs with the most important thing. For example, rather than Slack someone a long story that ends with a request, we’ll start with the request — “Do you have 30 minutes to help?” — and work back.
Write like you talk
If you wouldn’t say it in casual conversation to a friend, find simpler wording.
Check your facts
We take great pride in knowing the truth and citing our sources.
Write in active voice
Say, “I checked the facts,” not, “The facts were checked by me.”
Never submit something unless you’ve read through it yourself.
Those are words that modify other words, like “very,” “super,” “basically,” etc, as there’s probably a stronger word.
Leave room for doubt
We like to say “often” or “sometimes” because absolutes like “always” or “never” are rarely true.
Avoid using industry-specific words that others won’t easily understand.
These are words and phrases that are used so often, they’ve lost their meaning, like “Circle up” or “Let’s double-click on that.”
Fight statistical exaggeration
Statistics have a way of growing more extreme the more they’re shared. Keep yours honest, even if it means they require more explanation.
Reframe negative statements to be positive
For example, turn “no shipping fee” into “free shipping.” It’s shorter, more accurate, and more upbeat.
Check your homonyms and homophones
These are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently. E.g. “they’re” and “their.”
When in doubt, delete “that”
“That” tends to get overused. If you can delete it and a sentence reads the same, please do.
Double-check all pronouns
If it’s not clear what your “it” or “that” is referring to, bring the noun up again.
Is it a river or is it the Nile? Is it a truck or is it an eighteen-wheeler? Specificity paints the picture.
Radio was invented in the 19th century; your grandfather collects 19th-century radio sets.
Limit exclamation points
One per article is plenty.
Are they all necessary? Would a more specific noun choice be better? Is it a big house or a mansion? A brimmed hat or a fedora?
Trim your lists
If you’ve listed three things that are synonyms, pick the best and delete the rest.
Kill your darlings
Don’t keep something because you like it; keep it because it works.
Use diverse examples
If inventing names, mix them up. Don’t just stick to Anglo-Saxon Jacks and Jills. Same with genders and ages.
While we’ll only ever have one voice (it’s who we are), sometimes, we’ll alter our tone to match the situation. (Like whispering in a crowded theater.) Sometimes, we’ll adopt pieces of the language of those we’re speaking to. For example, we know medical workers serve patients, not consumers.
In help docs, avoid jokes.
People who go there are typically frustrated or in need of assistance, and that humor rarely lands. (Exception: Our website’s error page.)
In social media and in ads, it’s okay to abbreviate.
“Management” can become “mgmt” if needed.
In sales outreach, begin with the specific reason you’re reaching out.
If it’s difficult to be specific, it’s a sign you need to conduct more research.
On webinars, it’s okay to repeat yourself.
People are accustomed to boring webinars and tend to tune out. You can help them by intentionally reiterating your main point.
In legal documents, stick to our voice and avoid legalese.
Even if it’s accurate, it’s not accessible. We prefer our truths to be clear.
Things to avoid
Things our legal team says not to do
- Do not use True.ly as a verb. E.g. “Let’s True.ly that fact.”
- Do not use True.ly in possessive form. E.g. “True.ly’s agreement.”
- Do not use True.ly in plural form. E.g. “The customers talked about their True.lys.”
Words and phrases to avoid
Harmful, toxic, or questionable language such as blacklist, swarthy, or dame.
Gendered terms such as “Hey you guys” or “man hours.”
Alienating words or phrases especially those that apply to marginalized groups. E.g. “Driving blind.”
Sports analogies. They can be alienating, especially if used in excess.
Figures of speech that refer to war or violence, like “spray and pray” or “tools in your arsenal.”
Examples of on-style writing
- Given the option, everyone wants the facts.
- Rather than blame people, we should create better systems.
- Forty-six percent of marketers aren’t sure about the source of their statistics, according to a survey of 811 marketers by the research firm Forrester.
Examples of off-style writing
- Companies never do the right thing.
- It’s crazy how often people mess up their facts.
- The key to optimizing our spend is applying the correct business solution set.
- It’s like, the worst.
Emojis are if used sparingly, and intended to be taken literally.
Spell out numbers 1-9, use numerals for 10 and above. E.g. Nine questions, 10 posts.
- Exception: If it’s a range, like 1-9, use numerals.
- Exception: If the number starts the sentence, spell it out.
- E.g. Forty-five percent …”
Instead of “%,” use “percent.” E.g. 45 percent.
- Even though we have many global offices, we default to American spelling.
Use sentence case for titles and subtitles, meaning we don’t capitalize every word.
Use the serial comma, like so: this, this, and this.
Use an em dash without spaces ( — ), not an en dash (–) or em dash with spaces ( — ).
Spell out most acronyms on the first use. E.g. Account-based marketing (ABM.)
Capitalize people’s titles if they appear alongside their name. E.g. Sooma, Director of Marketing.
Specific word use
- Instead of “contract,” use “agreement.” It’s friendlier.
- It’s okay to use “stat,” but only after the first use of “statistic.”
- Instead of “fake news,” say “unverifiable news.”
- Instead of “optimize,” write out what you mean.
Product-specific word use
- Our product is called True.ly Fact Findr®, or Findr after the first use.
- Our Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is called the Fact Findrs, or just Findrs.
Know what’s much more effective than a static style guide in Word?
The Writer Styleguide. It assists you pretty much everywhere you write online.