All political figures divide opinion – and Jacob Rees-Mogg is more controversial than most. But politics aside, what can comms professionals take from politicians’ writing rules for their staff? Here’s our guide to making style guides elegant.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s leaked writing rules for staff is the perfect example of how every institution needs an aligned voice and clearly-defined standards.
For newsrooms, Rees-Mogg’s writing rules were an ideal antidote for a summer tainted by Brexit fatigue. It was also a chance for editors to roll out their classic Rees-Mogg favourites – including the tale of when he canvassed for his Central Fife seat in his mother’s Mercedes, alongside his nanny.
Predictably enough, political foes of the Leader of the House of Commons greeted the list with derision, perplexed at his insistence on the term Esq. and mocking his ‘archaic’ language.
Equally as predictably, his supporters surged forward to praise his staunch work in the face of ‘slipping education standards’ and sub-par copy.
What all the journalists pouring sarcasm on Jacob’s list failed to acknowledge was that each of them works under an encyclopaedic and detailed style sheet themselves. Every newspaper in the land has a constantly evolving guide to their own particular rules.
If you’ve ever put together a tone of voice guide or a style sheet for your business, you may have been squirming uncomfortably. We thought we were striving for consistency and best practice – but were we actually being laughably archaic?
For every rule laid down in the Commons Leader’s list about adding Esq. after the names of all non-titled males, there was a reminder that organisations are singular. For every banning of a word like ‘equal’ or ‘very’, he encourages avoiding an empty phrase, such as ‘I note your concerns’.
Should we all scrap these guidelines and let self-expression rule? Or is there a way of maintaining consistent standards without enforcing them like a Victorian schoolmaster?
The AP Stylebook is the gold standard for US journalists. Although it was created as a resource for reporters, such was the clamour for a guide to best writing practice that it became publicly available in 1953. Today, it’s the main reference for all corporate communications in the States.
In the UK, there’s no such universally-adopted standard, but online resources such as the Guardian Style Guide are used far more widely than within the Guardian’s Kings Cross offices.
Rees-Mogg isn’t alone in wanting to provide a consistent level of communication for colleagues and customers – or in his case, constituents. Your business’s tone of voice expresses your brand’s personality: how you want to be perceived by those you communicate with. Do you want the company to be seen as cutting edge, friendly or traditional?
At the same time, most organisations are keen to make sure every colleague is using the same names for products and services and providing a seamless standard of service to every customer, supplier or co-worker. So businesses often use a style guide, reminding everyone how they write dates and where the capital letters go.
Getting the words right is vital. A misplaced joke in a serious email can spell disaster. A business with a confused vocabulary is confusing for both its colleagues and its clients. So, if the concept itself isn’t the problem with Rees-Mogg’s list, what is?
Apart from his insistence on old-fashioned words and measurements, it’s the bold font and capitalisation. ‘CHECK your work’ sounds dictatorial and mistrustful from the off.
I’m enough of a language geek to enjoy reading style guides for fun; journalist and writer Keith Waterhouse’s 1989 book Waterhouse on Newspaper Style is a hilarious and captivating read in its own right. I thoroughly recommend it. And corporate style sheets don’t have to be dull either.