Say it With Style: Insist on Consistency with Your Law Firm's Content

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[The third in a three-part series by Denise Nix on applying proven journalistic principles to legal marketing content.]

Does the new law take effect on January 1, 2021, on Jan. 1, 2021 or on Jan. 1?

Was it signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, Gov. Newsom or the Governor?

Does it levy a 15% tax or a 15 percent tax?

While all the information above is the same, how you write it is where “style” comes in.

Style is about making a choice, and sticking with it.

Journalists use style to ensure consistency not only within an article, but across an entire publication. While there may be different ways to present the same information, it doesn’t mean that any of those approaches are “wrong.” Style is about making a choice, and sticking with it.

Content that is consistent appears polished and professional. More people than you’d expect read with a discerning eye toward inconsistencies. Those same readers will have a negative reaction to discrepancies and, by extension, you and your writing.

Style Guides

Don’t distract from your message by being inconsistent. Creating and using a style guide is a simple solution for consistency. Style guides ensure consistent use of the same grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and language in an individual article, publication or across a collection of communications — including a website, blog, social media and printed flyers, brochures and even pitch books and reports.

There are a number of style guides in publication. The “Associated Press Stylebook” is considered the gold standard of news writing. It reflect how lay readers are used to, and comfortable with, receiving information in written form. It emphasizes consistency, clarity, accuracy and brevity — all of which are goals for successful marketing content.

If you don’t know who you are, how do you expect your clients to know?

Other style guides include the popular “Chicago Manual of Style,” as well as those specific to courts and government agencies, such as the “California Style Manual.” Most industries have style guides specific to their common language, too.

The editors of each of these deliberated long and hard in deciding their style rules, and there are conflicts between them. For instance, AP Style omits the serial (aka Oxford) comma while CMS includes it. The “California Style Manual” says that “court” is only capitalized on second references when it refers to the highest court in the jurisdiction (usually the federal or a state Supreme Court), while AP Style calls for the word to be capitalized no matter what court you’re referencing.

Some people have very strong feelings about things like Oxford commas (don’t use them unless it’s needed for clarity, if you’re wondering my opinion) or how many spaces are needed after a period (only one — we’re not using typewriters anymore and don’t need the extra white space on our screens or publications). Either way, for these and other style questions, you should pick one and memorialize your decision in a style guide that is shared with, and used by, anyone who has a role in content marketing.

What to Include in a Style Guide?

There are a few commonly used words or terms that should be in every style guide. This includes your firm name. Think of all the ways there are to write a firm name:

  • Smith Jones & Williams LLP
  • Smith, Jones & Williams
  • Smith Jones and Williams LLP
  • SJW
  • SJ&W

If you don’t know who you are, how do you expect your clients to know? Little things like commas, ampersands and the type of organization you are must be consistent for effective branding. A good rule of thumb is to use the full, formal firm name the first time it is referenced in an article, web post or document. If the firm has a “nickname,” it can be used on second references — but it must always be the same.

Here are some other entries your style guide should have:

  • Numbers
  • Dates
  • Professional titles
  • Composition titles
  • Acronyms
  • Addresses

If you’re not sure which way to go on a style, look at publications your clients are reading for guidance. A local business journal, popular industry newsletters or blogs and even competitors’ client alerts or marketing materials are a good place to start. If you’re still not sure, turn to your local newspaper. The key is to make a style decision, and use it!

Previously in this Series

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Denise Nix has 25 years of experience in the communications field, including 15 years as a newspaper reporter and nearly 10 in in-house law firms marketing departments. Now the principal of Nix Strategic Communications, Denise helps law firms tell the stories that lead to successful marketing, public relations, business development and branding strategies. Visit her on LinkedIn.

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