Precision or pedantry? Do you need a corporate style guide?

This weekend the British media has been gleefully reporting the news that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Tory MP and newly appointed leader of the House of Commons, has issued his staff with a style guide on how to produce written communication with other MPs and members of the public.

Why have a style guide?

Setting aside for a moment the specific nature of the language rules issued by Mr Rees-Mogg’s team, the first question is whether corporate style guides are ever a good idea. After all, many organisations have them: The United Nations, The Economist and actually the UK government already has an official style guide. Why do organisations spend time and effort putting together a style guide for their employees?

  1. It can save time – a style guide can provide quick answers to questions and doubts around spelling, punctuation and capitalisation. Do we use British or American spelling? How do we format dates and times? Do we need a hyphen or not – for example, is it email or e-mail?
  2. It can ensure consistency – sometimes two alternative formats are both correct and it is just a question of style preference. Jacob Rees-Mogg has opted for the more old-fashioned two spaces after a full stop where many style guides would now favour one. The important thing is to ensure consistency within the organisation and certainly within a document or website. Ensuring consistency can be particularly challenging when multiple authors are working on the same document.
  3. It encourages professionalism – a style guide reflects the appropriate tone of voice and style of the organisation, ironing out inaccuracies, inconsistencies and other issues such as informality (or formality).  Written communication, unlike spoken communication, leaves a lasting record and is there on the page or online with errors, inconsistencies or sloppiness there to be reviewed for all eternity.

Now let’s look at Jacob Rees Mogg’s recent edict. Firstly, it has been pointed out that the guide was drawn up ‘some years ago’ but in fact some of the examples widely quoted in the media would suggest they date back several decades or more. Using imperial rather than metric measurements or addressing men without a title as ‘Esquire’ seem more relevant to the 1960s than to 2019. Secondly, he has banned a long list of words. Many of us were taught at school not to use words like ‘got’, ‘a lot’ or ‘yourself’ but to outlaw words such as ‘equal’, ‘hopefully’, ‘due to’ and ‘invest’ to name just a few of the words that have been banned seems unnecessarily severe.

Many professionals react badly to being told, as they see it, how to write. It can be perceived as a criticism of existing skills, overly directive and at worst an assault on individuals’ personal communication style. We wouldn’t ask our employees to speak in a specific way so why do we ask them to write within specific guidelines.

How can organisation create a style guide that sticks?

  • Start by thinking about the values of the organisation and the image you want to convey. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s somewhat formal and old-fashioned rules very much portray his image as an old Etonian, slightly eccentric persona, with old fashioned behaviours and opinions. But is this the image that the House of Commons wants to reflect in the 21st century? A style guide needs to reflect the organisation rather than its writer. If you want to come across as a modern, dynamic organisation a modern approach to written communication will serve you better.
  • Consider your audience –  if you have a global customer base, for example, a plain English style is paramount
  • Consult with your employees. Explain why a style guide is important and ask for input on what people think is or isn’t acceptable. Demonstrate the value and benefits of having a style guide and perhaps offer workshops where people can ask questions.
  • Use a light touch – your style guide will have some ‘non-negotiables’ but also includes some suggestions and best practice. Including a long list of prohibited words and expressions is likely to turn your readers off.

The amount of airtime this story has received shows that language matters and writing is a very personal and emotive topic. Finding the balance between a corporate style that represents the organisation and guidelines that don’t stifle the voice of an individual writer can be challenging – but not impossible.

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