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issue 48

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Training Bulletin Issue 48

How a style guide can improve your sales, not just your writing

There’s nothing like a good customer review to help you promote your product or service. An online clothing retailer found that its sales improved markedly when it corrected the grammar, spelling and punctuation of reviews of its products – so it actually paid people to do this. The critical point here is that the reviews were both negative and positive and this aspect was not changed. Just the English usage was corrected.

This shows how highly readers rate correct writing: it suggests that the content is thorough and objective and this is valuable even in the case of negative reviews. The same trends were found when checking the effect of reviews on online book sales and hotel bookings: correctly written reviews increased sales, regardless of whether they were positive or negative.

Even if training budgets are limited, with this kind of finding, you need to ask whether you can risk customers or stakeholders seeing errors in the documents that represent you.

Four things a good style guide should do for you

1. Define your voice

How do you want to be perceived by clients? Are you formal or casual? And if so, how much? Too much of one or the other can veer from sounding distant and bureaucratic to speaking to idiots. You can’t afford to get this wrong or to leave it to individual staff to guess what is the right tone.

2. Ensure consistency

Professional and consistent documents make you look competent. There are many areas in English usage where lots of different ways of writing are equally correct. But if everyone does their own thing, it makes your documents seem jumbled and confused.

3. Maximise correctness

A style guide should also address common problems to avoid, with examples of what is wrong and right. Mistakes in documents are the quickest way to lose credibility and trust. And we have just seen that even errors in third party reviews can affect sales.

4. Define company-specific usage

Many organisations have usages specific to them such as conventions for capitalisation, unusual spellings for trade and product names and preferences for abbreviations. Make sure everyone knows and uses your preferred conventions as these are an important part of your branding so you stand out from the competition.

Defining your voice

The table below shows conventions that will make you sound formal or casual. The degree to which you do so will depend on how many choices you make from each side of the column. Some documents such as email or web copy need to be more casual for maximum readability. Some documents may need to adopt a more formal tone, such as contractual letters or legal documents.

Word choiceElucidate
Clarify, Explain
Find out
Sentence StructurePassive:
A report was written by X
The customer will be contacted
X wrote a report
We will contact the customer
VoiceThird person:
The company has
The client will
Second person:
We have
You will
ContractionsI have
Do not
We will

Ensuring consistency

In many cases, there’s more than one way to write things. Make sure everyone uses the same conventions – this also makes editing easier if you have many contributors to a document.

Dates: the most common convention now is a two digit day (one digit for numbers one to nine), the month as a word and a four digit year. So 7 September 2011 rather than any of the following: 07/09/11, 7th Sept ’11, Seven Sept 2011

Numbers: generally write as words the numbers one to ten, and the rest as numerals. However, don’t start sentences with numerals. If you include symbols such as the percent sign either put both as words or use a numeral with a symbol. Monetary values are usually numerals, with a currency symbol, and if necessary to two decimal places.

Maximising correctness

Avoid these common problems that your spell checker won’t pick up:

Always use the spell checker as it will pick up most other things. But if you choose a correction that it offers you, make sure you pick the right one! Beware of picking impotent for important, incontinent for inconvenient, pubic for public and others that will have your readers laughing – at you, not with you.

Defining company specific usage


Capitalise the first word of sentences, proper nouns such as names of places, people and companies, days and months. Look out for unusual capitalisation in trademarks or brand names such as eBay or bmi. Americans capitalise seasons but the British don’t. Decide if you write Accounts Department, Accounts department or accounts department and be consistent. Make the same decision for people’s work titles.


E.g., or eg? Etc., or etc? I.e, or ie? Or avoid these altogether and say, for example, and so on, and that is.

Do you have an accepted abbreviation for your organisation’s name or products and services? How is it capitalised?


Choose a preferred font in at least 11 points – something fairly standard rather than an outlandish one – and make sure that all your templates use it. Decide on a layout – left aligned and ragged right edge, like this newsletter, are more readable. Define your heading styles and preferences for bullets. All these add up to a first impression of competence or sloppiness.

Do you need more?

This is a very quick overview of some of the answers your style guide needs to provide for your staff. We can help you to create a guide to support your specific voice and branding, and provide more details on the examples we've given here. You can contact us by emailing

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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