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The Relevance of Style

Sweating your brand’s small stuff for consistency and credibility.

February 21, 2018
 
 

These days, my colleagues and I are encouraged to see so many institutions of higher education paying attention to the voice of their brands and thinking about how to write effectively across campus. What we don’t see discussed, however, is editorial style—a topic that, granted, isn’t nearly as sexy but merits some attention.

Why? Because colleges and universities continually make mistakes in this arena. To be clear, I’m not talking about grammatical errors and typos (though these can also quickly compromise your credibility). Instead, editorial style addresses the details of the language you use: choices about spelling, punctuation, abbreviations, numbers and the like.

Yes, these are the minutiae of your brand. And yes, they’re worth your time. These trivial-seeming decisions can have a serious effect on how your audiences see you. Here are just a few issues we encounter again and again from institutions across the higher ed spectrum.

The overcapitalized lexicon. Capital letters serve an important purpose: they draw the eye to important information like proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences. But to judge by some of the content we see, colleges and universities should be less generous with their majuscules. Repeatedly, I run into “the University” and “the College,” with leaders like the President and the Dean, at events like Orientation and Commencement.

I understand the temptation: a capitalized term or title seems to have more heft. But while there’s only one University of Oregon and one Smith College (proper nouns), “university” and “college” are just common nouns, no capitals required. And in running text, your “Associate Professor of Marketing” is an associate professor of marketing—no disrespect to her hard work.

At worst, overcapitalization makes your writing feel impenetrable, like legalese. At best, you still come off as stuffy or self-important. Try down style on for size, and see whether it changes the feel of your content.

The overused exclamation point. You probably use exclamation points all day in texts and posts and emails and comments. I do too, because they do one thing well: signal strong feeling. That’s why the mark is a handy bit of shorthand in everyday exchanges, where we need to express the difference between, say, “shut up” and “shut up!

Let’s be frank, though. Even at its voicey-est, your brand doesn’t speak at that volume, or at least it shouldn’t. There may be once-in-a-super-blue-blood-moon exceptions (athletics might get an occasional pass). Most of the time, though, if your copy doesn’t convey urgency or enthusiasm, the problem isn’t the punctuation. You need to rework the text itself: tacking on an exclamation point just creates a sense of forced excitement. And whether you’re trying to reach Generation Z—whose bullshit detectors are legendary—or their grandparents, false emotion doesn’t play well. Instead, rewrite, replacing your exclamation points with humble periods. Your content will be stronger for it.

The oversimplified serial comma. While we at Ologie have a strong preference for the serial comma, we get that some folks come to this marketing gig via journalism, where the AP Stylebook is the bible. (That’s the case for this publication, in fact.) If your institution is wed to AP style, then your comma policy may look something like this: “Do not use the serial comma. Example: red, white and blue.” Case closed, right?

But what about a sentence like this? “Our strategic priorities for 2018–19 include more scholarships for first-generation students, new communications for transfer and international students and residence hall updates on the campus’s north side.” It gets a little muddy in the middle, no?

It turns out that AP actually requires the serial comma when it clarifies ambiguous phrasing, and when a series includes elements with conjunctions or complex phrases. The latter includes the sentence above, which needs a comma before its final “and” for clarity’s sake. Of course, you could avoid the hassle completely by using the serial comma all the time.

The undercommunicated standard. Consistency is critical to any brand. But how can you expect consistency if you haven’t documented your institution’s rules? Or if you haven’t disseminated them? And will anyone take them seriously if they’re dated 2009? I know—creating a style guide feels like a herculean task. So start small: list a set of terms that are specific to your campus, offer guidance on a few major issues, and then name a go-to reference for everything else. (I’m on Team Chicago, but the AP Stylebook is also a fine choice.)

Then publish your document online—publicly, so that both your internal communicators and external partners can access it. You can revise and expand it over time. Need some inspiration? Here are good examples of guides from institutions of all stripes.

Joel Showalter is the editorial director (yes, lowercase) at Ologie

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