A style guide can make tough communications easier

My dog looking at a notebook

Kaylee sometimes checks our family style guide

For nonprofits that are working on controversial issues (immigration or incarceration, for example) the need for consistent messaging is high. Often we are trying to reach people who don’t have direct experience with the issues we’re working on, including key audiences who have deep misunderstandings of these issues. Our organizational communications need to help people make sense of the issue. We know that our language matters.

This means your organization will have key messages and keywords you want to be using. But you don’t want every piece of communication you produce to sound the same, and it’s useful to have diverse spokespeople delivering messages from different perspectives (so that your different key audiences can hear from someone they trust).

Your organization can create and maintain a style guide to give your leaders guidance about how to write/speak/present about the issues you work on.

Organizations routinely have visual style guides which cover how to use the color scheme, typography and logo. For example, here’s Knight Foundation’s Guide to use of their logo and branding. Visual style guides are often specific about what you can and can’t do to a logo. But they are a good way to think about this issue: if your organization needs consistency, don’t leave communications completely up to the imaginations of your leaders and staff team.

And even more so than with visual style guides, a content style guide gives your leaders and spokespeople guidance about how to write/speak/present about the issue. A good content style guide creates the zone of flexibility that people can operate inside of.

You can choose whatever document and format fits your organization. Here are a couple of examples of online style guides:

In terms of what to include in your style guide, you can start with these sections:

  1. Keywords to use/Key messages
  2. Terms that your organization avoids (for example, “offenders”)
  3. Writing about People (for example, “formerly incarcerated people” instead of “felons.”)
  4. Grammar style guide (for example, if you use the AP style, or Chicago Manual of Style)

Your needs and format will vary. But a good style guide will balance your organization’s needs for consistency with some room for people to express themselves.

Image: Kaylee, consulting a guide before I publish this post to my blog. Photo by Kathleen Pequeño

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