Why your organisation needs a style guide

Many organisations, especially those involved in the media or publishing industries, have a ‘house style’—a way of writing that is particular to that organisation and is set out in their style guide. The style guide’s purpose is not to determine what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, but rather to serve as a reference point if there is any confusion and to ensure consistency across the organisation’s brand. Your style guide will lay out how to articulate the brand voice you decided was appropriate for your audience during your strategic planning.

There are two types of style guides. Visual style guides are aids for designers and contain things like your brand’s colours, font, logos and templates. Content style guides contain details of your organisation’s preferred spelling, terminology, voice, and word usage. Style guides can range in length from a few pages to an entire book; for example, the Australian Government’s Style manual for authors, editors and printers, which is the basis for all Australian government writing, is over 500 pages long and is extremely comprehensive.

As well as providing consistency across your organisation, style guides are also useful if you’re working with a freelance editor. Providing your editor with a style guide will speed up the process and ensure their edits are consistent with your brand.

Your style guide is a living document, so it should be updated regularly to take new usages into account. It should be easily accessible within your organisation, whether it’s produced in hard copy, published on your website or stored in a shared drive.

Visual style guide

Visual style guides set out all the elements related to your brand’s appearance, presentation and design. This allows you to ensure consistency across all your publicity material, whether physical or online, even if you’re working with different designers. Your visual style guide may include:

  • Logo size and placement (and how not to use the logo)
  • Colour palette (including hex codes/RGB for web use and CMYK/Pantone for printing)
  • Fonts (for headings and body text)
  • Any iconography or patterns that your organisation uses in its design
  • Photography style (including examples for reference)
  • Graphics style (including examples for reference)
  • Web-specific elements (such as navigation buttons or error pages)
  • Content templates.

Creating a visual style guide is a specialised skill, so it’s best to work with a graphic designer on this. Your designer can prepare a style guide as part of working with you on your overall branding, including designing your logo. If your organisation is likely to produce a lot of publicity material, a visual style guide is vital to ensuring brand consistency. The quickest way to appear unprofessional is to have a variety of fonts, colours and styles across your brand.

Content style guide

Style guides for written content contain details of the way your organisation expects its content to be written. These may include:

  • The version of English spelling that your organisation uses (e.g. American, British, Australian, Canadian)
  • Which dictionary/thesaurus should be used to check spelling or usage (e.g. Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Macquarie)
  • Preferred spelling of words commonly used by your organisation (e.g. Asia-Pacific not Asia Pacific)
  • Use of inclusive language
  • Any specific points of grammar, such as active voice
  • Specialised punctuation, including the use of bullet points or numbered lists, and the organisation’s preferred use of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes (but not punctuation that should be commonly understood, like the correct use of apostrophes)
  • Formatting
  • Accepted acronyms and abbreviations (which ones are acceptable without spelling them out in full)
  • Terminology (how organisation-specific terminology should be explained)
  • Words that should be avoided
  • Capital letters (especially if there are organisation-specific proper nouns)
  • Headings
  • Numbers and measurement
  • Tone and register (casual, informal, formal)
  • Brand voice
  • Reading level
  • Phrases
  • Methods of citation
  • Any stylistic devices unique to the organisation.

Style guides can be structured in different ways, but the main thing is that they have to be easy to navigate. They’re not designed to be read cover-to-cover; rather, your writers will use them as a resource that they dip in and out of. For this reason, they need to have a clear table of contents and ideally an index as well. If you’re publishing it online, the contents page should be hyperlinked to the relevant sections.

The other important thing to note is that you don’t have to develop a guide completely from scratch. There are a number of comprehensive commercial style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (which is over 1000 pages long) that you can use as the basis for your organisation’s style guide. Think of the contents of your style guide as being in addition to the comprehensive guide, rather than repeating things from it. For example, most Australian government departments have their own departmental style guides based on the official government Style manual for authors, editors and printers. The convention is to first consult the departmental guide and, if it doesn’t contain specific guidance, to then consult the Style manual. This way, you’re prioritising your brand-specific style, but can still give your writers general guidance through the use of a commercial style manual. Many of these manuals, such as Chicago, now also have extensive online support. Developing your style guide this way will also allow you to keep it short (ideally no more than five pages), meaning that it is more likely to be used.

When developing your style guide, make sure you consult the people who will actually be using it—your writers and editors. They’ll be able to tell you if there are different usages in the organisation and help you select the most appropriate. Have a plan in place to regularly review and update the style guide, and a method for keeping track of possible changes in the interim. Your style guide is a living document and will need to adapt to evolving language, such as words going in and out of fashion or changing in meaning. This is especially true in organisations that deal with technology or media, where language changes fast.

 

5 steps for scoping a project

For many volunteer organisations or community groups, scoping out a large project can be a daunting task. We’ve all been there – when confronted with a massive undertaking, such as developing a new policy or procedure, it can be hard to know where to start.

But learning to outline a project effectively is imperative – having a properly-scoped project will help you complete it on time and on budget. If you’re looking to work with an outside professional, such as a freelance designer, writer or consultant, you’ll also need to have a good idea of what you want before you approach them, because they’ll need to know details and timelines. So here are a few simple steps to make the process easier.

1. Start with the big picture. What is it you want to achieve with the project and why? E.g. “Develop a sexual harassment policy for our organisation to bring us into line with best practices and ensure we meet our legal and ethical obligations.”

2. Break it into chunks. Almost all projects can be compartmentalised to a certain extent – a long document can be broken into chapters or sections, for example. A large project becomes much more manageable once it’s in smaller pieces.

3. Prioritise the most important things. In most projects, there will be some areas that are critical and some that are less so. Figuring out what your priorities are will help you decide which tasks you need to complete first and/or which you need professional help with. This is particularly important if you’re working with a professional but don’t have the budget for them to complete the entire project. You can use a system such as MoSCoW to help align your priorities – list the things you Must do, Should do, Could do, and Want to do.

4. Develop concrete tasks. This is about translating your project from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ – from a great idea to something that can actually be done. Your tasks need to be as specific and detailed as possible, so that the people doing them know exactly what they need to achieve. This is particularly important if you’re outsourcing some or all of them to professionals, because they’ll be working off what you tell them and any late changes could lead to an increased cost. Take each of the areas you’ve prioritised above and work out exactly what you need, e.g. “500 words outlining the history of our organisation, based on existing documents.” Make sure you think about all aspects of the task, including the amount of research or development that needs to be done, and a realistic timeframe for achieving it.

5. Set deadlines. Decide on an overall deadline for the project, and then work out individual deadlines for each task according to its priority. Make sure you factor in things like final proofreading for written documents, or board sign-off. The deadlines should be realistic, especially if you’re working with a professional, because quick-turnaround tasks will cost more. Note: ASAP is not a deadline!

Scoping a project takes time, and it can be frustrating when you’re enthusiastic and just want to launch straight into it. But it’s worth investing the time at the start to ensure you’ve got a really clear idea of how it’s going to run – it’ll save you a lot of grief down the track and will also help you maintain good relationships with any outside providers you’re working with.

Why all community groups need a sexual harassment policy

Taylor Swift. Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage

Today a jury in the US found DJ David Mueller guilty of assault and battery against pop star Taylor Swift, for putting his hand up her skirt and groping her at a party. For the many women around the world who have been subject to sexual harassment or assault, this was a vindicating moment.

Most workplaces these days have come a long way in how they deal with sexual harassment allegations, with comprehensive policies and procedures that comply with the relevant laws while being as just and fair as possible. Many community groups and small not-for-profits, however, still have a long way to go.

It’s easy to see how developing these policies can be put off. They’re complex, difficult to get right and may even require legal advice. When a volunteer board has its hands full keeping the organisation running, policies and procedures often get put on the backburner or take a very long time to come to fruition.

Unfortunately, many community groups only realise how important these things are when they’re needed, which is far too late. It’s not unusual for a community group to go into meltdown over a sexual harassment allegation when it doesn’t have a policy or procedure to follow. The resulting process risks being neither just nor fair, and may fail to conform to best practice for investigating these sorts of allegations as set out by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The complainant may also have grounds for a complaint to either the AHRC or their state-based anti-discrimination authority due to failures in the process, which could end up being drawn-out, painful and costly for all involved. Dealing with sexual harassment allegations is never going to be easy, but having a proper process will make it less traumatic for both the complainant and the accused, and will increase the chances of a satisfactory resolution for all parties.

If your organisation doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy, the time to develop one is now. The good news is there are plenty of resources available to help you.

Developing these sorts of policies and procedures isn’t just about protecting your organisation – it’s about ensuring all parties are treated justly and fairly, and that the process is transparent and well-executed. You may think the cost in time and potentially money (should you require legal advice) is high – but the cost of not doing it can be far higher.