The Big Blue Communications writing style guide 2019

A resource-saving tool for project teams that need a starting point for clear, uniform messaging. Targeted primarily at project communications experts on international development projects.

Content is important. It influences thoughts, emotions, and actions. Good content makes the world better.

At Big Blue, our internal writing style guide helps teammates to create clear, compelling content. This guide governs our writing for reports, stories, website and social content, scripts and even emails.

We often work closely with communications experts juggling complex content needs on large international development projects. They fill multiple roles as advisors, editors, and producers, often with project teammates working together for the first time.

We are sharing our writing style guide to give those project comms experts a head start and save resources, too.

10 steps to clear, compelling content

Fact-check. Reputations depend on it.

Write to create connections. Stories are about connections with people. Write with emotion. No robot language.

Get to the point fast. Reduce adverbs and adjectives. No throw-away statements. Reduce noise in your writing. Each word matters. 1 minute = 150 spoken English words, or 250 read words. Plan accordingly.

Short words, sentences, and paragraphs. Break up and condense long sentences. Plain writing travels better across language barriers. Less than 25 words per sentence as per UK government practice. Comprehension drops as sentences become longer. Comprehension is around 10% once sentences are around 43 words.

Write with structure. Start with a skeleton of helpful, memorable titles and headings. These give structure. They also attract attention. Up to 80% of online readers may never read more than a title, so make it count. Write several versions of a title before choosing the best.

Modern UK English. No archaic language.

Proofread. Proofreading is conscientious, caring, and professional. You are in charge of your own proofreading.

Use jargon and acronyms with care. They save time for some audiences, but alienate others. Aim for acronym-free/light writing.

Active voice wherever possible.

Words + images = power. Images often communicate faster than words. Use often.

How to write as part of a team

Write with collaboration tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Sharepoint. Let your teammates write and edit together at the same time. Avoid version control problems.

Use ‘style headings’. These save time, money, and mental health. This is not optional. Teams that use style headings spend less time formatting.

Use agreed filenaming conventions. Consider the search terms that teammates may use. Do not use your own filenaming conventions.

Put files on the shared drive. This is safer and more helpful than storing on your own device. Store in logical locations for easy searching.

Be a kind, critical, supportive editor. ‘Track’ changes when reviewing others’ work so they can see your edits. Be firm in helping teammates adhere to a writing style guide.

Murky writing vs clear writing

Example: Murky

On Thursday, 30th March 2018, project stakeholders were assembled at the Inclusive Business Conference held at Amari Hotel in Dhaka to discuss financial inclusion for all and Bangladesh’s progress towards achieving the SDGs.

At the event, our team was responsible for leading a presentation on access to finance for the nation’s underprivileged people. The presentation was attended by the Chief Guest, Special Guest and Honourable Guest, as well as ministers and business executives.

The presentation was opened by the Master of Ceremonies, who introduced the need for MFS to be incorporated into the vision for Digital Bangladesh. Our team then gave a presentation that highlighted the main points of our research. Consumers are using MFS, but small business owners are not doing so to a large extent. Government must take steps to ensure that MFS are taken up by small business owners in order to promote innovation across the country.

Why this does not work: Long-winded and not direct. Robot language. No emotion. Focuses on the wrong details. Mis-prioritisation of information slows reading. Does not get to the point fast enough. Throw-away phrases include ‘financial inclusion for all’. Passive voice throughout. Includes alienating acronyms.

Example: Clear

Last Thursday at the first-ever Inclusive Business Conference in Bangladesh, we presented our research into small business owners’ use of mobile financial services.

Overall, the outlook is poor. Citizens are indeed picking up services like bKash and Rocket to transfer small amounts of cash, but small business owners do not see a strong case for incorporating digital services into their operations. In fact, less than 20% of small business owners use digital services for deposits or loan applications. More than 60% of surveyed business owners feel that mobile financial services are less secure than more traditional financial services.

This perception of mobile financial services is bad for business and for the country’s development. The government must create a better environment that encourages small business owners to move to digital services if the country wants to compete with others in the region. This is urgent, particularly as Bangladesh is now, according to a recent Global Innovation Index Report, the least innovative country in Asia.

Why this works: Short sentences, simple words. Gets to the point. Avoids pomp. Includes hard facts. Offers context. Gives readers a lot to think about. Creates a sense of urgency. Sentences start with helpful ‘linking’ words such as ‘Overall’, and ‘In fact’. Includes helpful hyperlink to report where readers can do more in-depth research.