Robert Mills • 10 minutes
A content style guide is an important part of any organisation’s content operations. Whilst they can’t alleviate every content-related challenge, or guarantee content will be delivered in the right style and format, they do provide a shared understanding of language, voice, tone and rules for writing across an organisation.
There’s no one-size-fits-all for content style guides. It’ll vary from organisation to organisation as to best format, what to include, what to exclude, and how to disseminate them effectively.
Looking at different content style guides can inspire and inform. In this article we’ll be analysing the University of Dundee’s content style guide, from identifying the need, getting it created, making sure people use it and ensuring it stays relevant.
The University of Dundee content style guide is viewable online and I spoke to their Web Content Manager, Danny Cassidy, about the development and use of the guide across the university.
There are lots of catalysts for creating a content style guide:
For the University of Dundee, by their own admission they face the same kind of challenges as most universities with regards to how content is created and managed across digital and print.
The website is fragmented as it has been added to, changed and evolved over a number of years, all with minimal governance. Another common reality for universities is a devolved publishing environment. For Dundee this means large amounts of content is produced for internal and external audiences but with little guidance for all those involved in content production and management. This dilutes the consistency and quality of the content, which for any type of business is risky and less than ideal.
Danny shared some issues that manifested themselves because of this situation:
The poor and confusing experience for their audience also impacted negatively on the university’s brand.
With this in mind, there were two factors that were instrumental in identifying the need for a content style guide:
The restructure resulted in a better focus as a team in marketing activities and a clear remit to improve external and internal communications. Danny was clear that although the style guide wasn’t directly linked to this restructure, it couldn’t have happened without it.
The brand refresh provided the opportunity for the university to think about how they wanted to communicate to different audiences. The content style guide was a product of that process.
As with any critical piece of work around change management, ContentOps, or digital transformation, buy-in is needed across the organisation from key stakeholders. Dundee’s Director of Marketing and Communications was 100% behind the project and could see the potential of the style guide, recognising it as a key part of the brand refresh, thus ensuring time and resource were given to produce it.
Danny and his team looked at other style guides during their planning phase and Danny noticed ‘the good ones were those which were clearly aligned with a brand.’ All of the ones that stood out for positive reasons were:
Just like the content should be that the guides were informing. Though these may seem like obvious characteristics for what a content style guide should be, Danny’s research uncovered many that were ‘difficult to browse or just plain uninspiring.’
The planning process soon became the first stage of production where they:
The final content principles reflect the fact that the University’s approach to digital was now based on user needs and making their content and services accessible to everyone.
A challenge of any style guide production is ensuring all decisions made around the agreed rules and guidelines are informed. For Dundee, a lot of the guidance on voice and tone was informed by a brand perception study that was carried out as part of their brand refresh. This gave them confidence in their strengths and weaknesses as a brand, as well as helping them define messaging themes.
Every content style guide needs a clear purpose beyond being a box ticking exercise for deliverables. In the case of the University of Dundee, theirs serves a few different purposes.
It’s a tool for the team in marketing and communications. The Reference guide section contains detailed and searchable information on grammar, punctuation, University terminology, and place names.
A content style guide also gives a way to push back if content delivered isn’t compliant. An evidence-based document empowers content champions to question issues such as not using sentence case for headings or using the wrong date format. As Danny observed, ‘small as these issues are they matter for consistency and their misuse has a cumulative effect.’
The extreme example of this are content issues that have a detrimental impact on user experience. Things like having walls of text or not using plain language. ‘Having the style guide there for everyone to see as a University of Dundee standard allows us to make an informed and constructive argument when we think there’s an opportunity to improve content.’
That’s a powerful position to be in. The clout of a content style guide in difficult conversations and for reasoning, is partly due to how carefully it has been considered and the purposes it has been developed for.
As I delved into the way the style guide is being used, it became clear that is is far more than a reference point during the creation of new content. Danny shared this example:
“We are now in the process of completely rebuilding our website and implementing a new CMS. Part of this project will be a big content migration process, and the last thing we want to do is migrate substandard content from an old system into a new one.”
The style guide is a statement of intent. It gives the University community a vision of where they want to be.
Planning of the style guide happened in 2016, with a version released in the autumn of 2017. There have been various tweaks and additions since then. This is to be expected though because if your style guide never evolves or changes then it loses its relevance and usefulness.
The core team involved in creating the content style guide consisted of Danny, the Web Content Manager and four content editors. There was also guidance from Marketing on some of the voice and tone content.
The style guide was created in Word docs and once approved, the pages were built in the CMS. (Pssst: You can embed your content style guide within GatherContent too, adding rules and guidelines to content templates to empower writers at the point of content production).
The research yielded a list of requirements and standard elements to be included in the content style guide:
A well defined structure is imperative to making the style guide usable. It doesn’t need to read in its entirety every time someone uses it, rather they are signposted to relevant sections to help them get the information they need quickly and with as little disruption as possible to their content production, editing or review.
This section starts by defining what the university’s voice is. Never take it for granted everybody just knows this already. Provide the context and then examples to show it in practice.
The importance of voice and tone is brilliantly summarised with this sentence from the style guide:
We can speak with a common voice that identifies who we are and defines the relationship between us and our audiences.University of Dundee content style guide
Then the style guide defines the voice as:
When it comes to tone, the style guides alludes to empathy and being understanding of the emotional state of your audience. This is imperative to getting the tone right as this could vary significantly between your social channels and a support email.
The style guide provides examples from across different channels to help illustrate the nuances in their tone in varying circumstances. Nothing hammers a point home more than a contextual and real-life example.
There has to be a fine balance between providing rules and guidelines but not stunting the process for writers. If there are too many rules for them to adhere to and too many red lines to work within, it will take them forever to sense check their content against all the criteria.
That said, there will be some essential do and don’ts and for Dundee this is covered with a relatively short list of words to avoid.
The justification for this list is the need to avoid jargon, use plain English, and make sure content is ‘readable, accessible, and concise.’ They also link to their blog article which further explains the reasoning. This is good practice. It makes supporting information available without adding noise to the style guide itself.
When there are lots of people involved in creating content, often across many silos, it is unsurprising that organisations (especially universities) experience these challenges:
A style guide is no silver bullet to stop all of these challenges being present, but it does help takes steps towards connecting everyone around a shared style and strategic goal for content. (Editor’s note: We recently surveyed over 60 universities about their ContentOps and challenges. Check out the results).
It’s important to provide the writing guidelines with examples. Here are a couple from the Dundee content style guide:
Other guidelines include:
Some of these are specific and stringent, some more lenient. Undoubtedly it will also depend on the content type and channel. But they are guidelines, not rules, and need to be put into practice accordingly.
To focus for a moment on the challenge referenced above of Subject Matter Experts struggling to understand why writing specifically for the web is important. The Dundee style guide includes notes around writing for digital media.
It brings into consideration non-linear user journeys, multi-device behaviours and expectations of immediacy. Whilst this section doesn’t give specific instructions for writing, it serves the purpose of illustrating the audience needs, expectations and behaviours.
To tie all of their guidelines together, this section of the style guide concludes by offering two examples of copy, stating they are samples that could be used on the homepage, or in the introduction to a prospectus/viewbook.
The example is meant to ‘indicate style and not necessarily content’ so it provides the all important context for those referring to the guide and wanting some direction and clarity.
This section of the content style guide is the nitty-gritty, the details and nuances of formatting. It covers headings and subheadings, formatting of contact details, quotations, abbreviations and acronyms, formatting of number, money, ages, dates and times, punctuation rules and information around lists, specific language for the university and much more. There are also examples of correct and incorrect copy and formatting. Thankfully such an exhaustive section does have a search function if needed and here are a few chosen excerpts to demonstrate some of the reference points. They also have specific examples for the web and specific for print if needed.
The sections towards the end refer to the correct way to format course names, schools and directorates, titles of people. Places, and includes a short A-Z too.
It’s a comprehensive section that really leaves no margin for error from content creators. Provided they use the style guide.
Creating a content style guide is only half the battle. Getting people to use it is the other challenge. This usually means creating different formats, facilitating engagement sessions, training peers, and sheer perseverance.
In the case of Dundee, they have web version and also a PDF format. Each department has a copy of the latter. Mindful that emailing a PDF is unlikely to encourage people to use the style guide, the team also lead writing for the web workshops where the style guide is referenced and distributed. GOV.UK also ran workshops as part of their style guide dissemination and employee training and engagement.
During the workshops, participants from across the university are given exercises where they edit examples of content to ensure compliance with the style guide. This practical element is necessary rather than reading the style guide out loud or simply talking through it. In the same way any good style guide has visuals where appropriate and real-life examples to show, not just tell.
No style guide is ever done. It needs to be reviewed and updated periodically. Key to ensuring effective governance is having someone responsible for keeping the style guide up to date.
At Dundee there are a couple of people who take the lead in updating and reviewing it. Those reviews tend to happen because they’ve had a conversation as a team about a certain aspect of content creation. These conversations result in observations like, ‘that should be in the style guide’.
If a clear purpose is defined, the content style guide is usable, and it is disseminated effectively, there are plenty of benefits. This was certainly true at Dundee where both the content and the team were levelled-up.
Danny noted that improvement in the quality of the University’s content can’t be attributed to the style guide alone. Rather, it is the entire content operations that includes an effective brand framework, better governance, regular content reviews, and the style guide all playing a part.
“ The style guide has been the foundation for many improvements and it would have been difficult to make the same headway without it.”
The University of Dundee has a dedicated team of content professionals with skills in copywriting, content modelling, and content design. This put them in a good starting position when committing to creating the content style guide.
The style guide also reflects a key strand in the University strategy of embracing a common approach. In the past, universities have suffered from a lack of standards or have invariably had a multitude of solutions for the same kind of problem. These days are numbered at Dundee. The style guide is just one way in which they are attempting to change the culture of the University.
It’s always useful to seek advice from someone who has been there and done it. The do’s, the don’ts and the if I knew then what I know now. I asked Danny and his team for their top tips for creating a content style guide:
There are plans to add more context and examples to the style guide, from across the university. As their content ecosystem evolves and their ContentOps matures, the style guide will become a cornerstone in empowering content creators. It will also ensure confidence in the quality of content published, consistency across silos.