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Avoid Audience Confusion Create a Style Guide
Nancy Schwartz

November, 2007



There's never enough time when you're getting communications out the door. But when two different spellings of the same word (both correct) are used in a membership drive campaign, or the way your nonprofit is described varies from letter to letter within the campaign, or your logo appears in different colors and different sizes in different places, your audiences will be confused. The answer? Style standards clearly defined and published in a style guide.

The Problem

Due to the ubiquitous nature of advertising and promotion, we're all bombarded by communications. In the face of this morass, you're making it difficult for your audiences to recognize, at a glance, that your communications are all coming from your organization. Remember, we're all scanners these days.

In addition, it's likely that those who do recognize that these divergent communications are from you won't think much of your organization or your sloppy communications effort.

Consistency is the key to your audiences absorbing your messages, and for them to be able to "whisper down the lane" – repeating those messages to others. No other form of communication is as powerful as this natural network.

A Style Guide Is a Long-Term Solution

An easy way to ensure clear and consistent communications is to create a two to three page editorial and design style guide. Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to getting the word out. The standards featured in your style guide will make it easy for them to do so.

A style guide will also make it unnecessary for you and your colleagues to re-invent the wheel each time, saving you a great deal of effort.
Action Plan

Here is a step-by-step plan approach to putting together, or updating, your style guide.

  • Spread out communications samples in front of you, including pages printed out from your web site and your e-newsletter.
  • Jot down standards that work best in the following areas. Keep your audience in mind when you do so. You'll want input from communications staff or consultants.

    Traditionally, style guides covered punctuation, and spelling. I suggest that you expand this concept to include graphic guidelines and key messages. This way, you have a single point of reference to shape your communications.

  • Logo: Sizing; colors; position on the page; what elements should be included when logo is used.
  • Colors: Official colors -- with exact Pantone numbers if possible (Pantone is a color numbering system used by designers and printers) and notes on how those colors are to be used.
  • Words not to use.
  • Word style preferences (e.g. web site vs. website, grant making vs. grantmaking).
  • The title of the published grammar style guide that your group uses: Communicate the title of the guide that your writers need to follow when deciding whether to insert that final comma or not, or selecting the right preposition to follow the word parallel (to or with).

    Review these titles, talk to colleagues, and select one if you haven't already. Top picks are:
    • The Associated Press Stylebook
    • The Chicago Manual of Style
    • Words into Type.
  • Talking points for staff and board: Key messages that briefly cover the who, what, when, where, and how of your group, and how they should be incorporated in most communications.
  • Positioning statement: The two or three sentences that establish your position in the philanthropic world and how it should be included, as a whole, in most communications.
  • Typeface (e.g. all newsletter headlines are in Times Roman Bold, 14 pt.).

Putting Your Style Guide to Work
Your next step is to distribute the guide and ensure that staff and consultants are clear on its content. Remember to add to your guide on an ongoing basis as questions come up and preferences are determined.

© 2002-2007 Nancy E. Schwartz. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing and communications. Subscribe to her free e-newsletter "Getting Attention", (http://www.nancyschwartz.com/getting_attention.html) and read her blog at http://www.gettingattention.org for more insights, ideas and great tips on attracting the attention your organization deserves.

In addition, as President of Nancy Schwartz & Company (www.nancyschwartz.com), Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to organizations as varied as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Center for Asian American Media and Wake County (NC) Health Services.
NOTE: You're welcome to "reprint" this article online as long as it remains complete and unaltered (including the copyright and "about the author" info at the end), and you send a copy of your reprint.

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