One useful item in any content strategy toolkit is the style guide. Today, I wanted to look at a couple of my favourites.
The thing I like about these is that while they’re for very different organisations – one is a government, and the other is a talking monkey who helps you send email – there are more similarities than differences.
A style guide can cover almost everything, from logo and branding to typography to the HTML and CSS code you use. But why use a style guide? The UK Government Digital Service’s own research gives four reasons: it makes better use of writers’ and editors’ time; it helps readers by being consistent; it conveys the right ‘look and feel’; and it saves you money.
Today, though, I want to look at tone of voice – how can the many people at your organisation speak to the user as one?
GOV.UK is the website of the UK Government. Its clean, straightforward design has won it a lot of attention as well as awards. It seems to me that none of this could have happened if those design principles hadn’t been embedded in its style guide. There isn’t space for a lengthy analysis here but suffice to say that it embodies the GOV.UK aesthetic, clearly explaining what a contributor to GOV.UK should do, how they should do it, and why. Two of my favourites are the sections on writing in plain English, and on making content easy to find via search engines. Their most important tip? Stick to the style guide!
As well as its style guide, the email marketing company MailChimp also dedicates a separate site to the company’s tone of voice. The MailChimp takes great pains to explain to its staff that while their voice is always the same, its tone should change according to users needs. This means the company’s humourous branding comes across loud and clear when users are happy, but gets dialled back when they’re having problems. Some of my favourite parts of the style guide are the grammar tips (“Ampersands: Don’t use them.”), and the different approach staff should take when writing for the MailChimp blog (“Be casual, but smart”). I’m also going to go out on a limb and say it’s the only style guide ever which explains when to use the phrase “Eep eep!”
Different but the same
Much as I’d like it to be true, it’s hard to imagine GOV.UK ever needing to define when it’s appropriate to use the phrase “Hi, Neil. Why am I smiling, you ask? Because I’m not wearing any pants!” on its website. But this is the exception that proves the rule. The MailChimp and GOV.UK style guides have a lot in common:
1. Sweat the details
Both style guides detail exactly when to use italics. GOV.UK’s explains when you should use a full stop in ‘eg’ and ‘ie’ (never). MailChimp have strong opinions on semicolons. These aren’t hard and fast grammar rules everywhere, but they are for these two sites. They make them consistent and reassure their users that the organisations are professional, knowledgeable and in control.
2. Define what you are – and what you’re not
Stating both what your organisation is and isn’t is a great way to strike the right balance when defining tone of voice. GOV.UK and MailChimp both know this. GOV.UK is “brisk but not terse” and “serious but not pompous”. MailChimp is “confident but not cocky” and “expert but not bossy”. Two very different organisations, but with very similar ideas of how they should talk to users.
3. Put users first
I’m a user experience designer, so it was probably inevitable this tip would end up in here. Your style guide should put users at the centre. What do they need from your website? GOV.UK’s guide explains that, “Using this style guidance will help us make all GOV.UK information readable and understandable.” And MailChimp makes clear that “our priority is to explain MailChimp and help our users get their work done and get on with their lives”. Both style guides recognise that users should be able to find out what they need as easily and as stress-free as possible.