How to create a brand voice guide that’s actually useful (from a writer who’s seen hundreds)
A brand voice guide (or tone-of-voice guide, editorial guide, editorial style guide, style guide or whatever else you’re calling the thing you use to keep your writers on-brand) is the gin-flavoured chilli jam of the messaging world.
You imagine you’re going to cook all these fancy things with it, but you use it once or twice only for it to languish at the back of your fridge. Maybe it gets a burst of new life when you have a fridge reshuffle, when you optimistically scrape the mould off the top and take a tentative spoonful.
But ultimately you hide it right back where it was and make a boring old omelette anyway.
(Enough with the metaphor? Okay, enough. Sorry.)
Here’s a short checklist to not do that, to create an actually useful asset that does what you need. (Read more: How to brief copywriters for the best results)
Keep it short
Seriously, way shorter than you think. Copywriters can spend hours down a rabbit hole of research, but their eyes glaze over within a few pages of nuanced grammatical bleurgh. Which leads us to…
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Style guides are often so long because they take a whole new approach to the endless bloody list of English grammar rules. Don’t, there’s no need.
Pick someone who’s done it already – like the Economist. Or the Guardian. Or the AP Stylebook. Then link to it, reference key points that’ll come up often and pull out any differences. Think useful not comprehensive.
When brands talk about their voice, you often see stuff like “We’re deeply passionate about what we do. We’re smart and sometimes witty. We’re brave.” What’s much more useful is including the negative too, to help writers understand where you’re drawing the lines.
As in, “We’re deeply passionate but never puppy-like excitable. We’re smart and sometimes witty – but we don’t do juvenile or rude. We’ve brave enough to talk about uncomfortable truths but we’re never insensitive or opinionated for the sake of it.”
Make it actionable with examples
Unless you want productivity and creativity to plummet because your writers have to trawl through the minutiae of your editorial guide whenever they write*, you need them to internalise your style.
*Read more: 15 things your copywriter hates
The best way to do that is examples of your voice in action. Most useful are real examples from your existing assets that show what hitting and missing the mark looks like.
Like “We’re confident but never arrogant – so we elevate our customers not ourselves. Try this: ‘we’re proud of the incredible things our customers have achieved using our talent platform’ over this ‘we’re proud of our incredible talent platform’”.
Write in your voice
This sounds obvious but apparently isn’t, given how many style/editorial/voice guides read like a directory. If you’re creating a whole guide – with not-inconsiderable time, effort and expense – to champion your voice and style, please actually champion your voice and style.
This isn’t a do-as-I-say type activity.
Have a robust editing process
Writing and grammaring are often two different things. That’s not to say you shouldn’t expect your writers to (mostly) adhere to your grammar guidelines. But if you’re relying on them – and paying them – for their creativity, everyone’ll be best served by someone else doing the fine toothcomb bit.
Include a cheat sheet
A tautology worth pointing out: an editorial guide is only useful if it’s actually used.
One bit your writers will actually refer to again and again is a cheat sheet page with your most common spellings and mistakes. Like, how do you write your brand name? Is your biggest bugbear writers using “solutions” and “utilize”? Are you happy with ‘bloody’ but not ‘fucking’?
Read more: The blockbuster guide to tone-of-voice
Hard no’s live here too. The things you absolutely need every writer to pay attention to, or it’s deep-water time. Missing an apostrophe doesn’t live here.
Voice stays the same; tone flexes. (Like a real person).
So don’t expect one guideline to fit every scenario. If your voice could be characterised as bold, fiery challenger, say, think about what that’ll look like when you’re apologising for a monumental fuck-up versus announcing a new product.
Create a living doc
Your style/voice guide should evolve when you think of new stuff that should live there. That means it needs to be a living doc, so writers can suggest changes, that’s reviewed regularly, etc.
Build the process for this to happen or embrace the back-shelf of the fridge.
Start with a story
We’re huge proponents that everything you ever write should tell a story, and the same’s true of internal docs. It’s weird that we’ve all embraced an ‘employees matter as much as customers’ ethos (which they do) but also our internal comms often fall short.
Help your writers buy into your doc with some background on why your voice is your voice; why it’s here; why they should pay attention to it.
Include contacts for more help
A small one, but don’t leave your writers high-and-dry. If they’ve got a burning Q that isn’t answered, tell them what to do.
Also, think about who’ll be using your guide. If that’s external writers as well as internal writers, directing to Slack or an internal contact isn’t useful unless those writers know everyone and are super embedded in your biz.
How do you want external writers to pull out inconsistencies, notes or questions about their copy? Do you want notes by email? Comments in doc? Definitely not comments in-doc?
Done right, your style/voice guide is one of the most important things your business will ever create. Because if you follow these tips (or even better, hire HR Tech Copy 😎), you’ll have a useful, actionable asset that arms your writers with the tools to create consistently on-brand, compelling content that drives leads.