Confab Central: Get your guidelines off the shared drive and into hearts and minds

I spoke about something that I’m passionate about: content guidelines (like your platform strategy, voice and tone guide, playbook etc) and how to get them off the shared drive and into the hearts and minds of your colleagues.

When I talk to organisations about guidelines, there are two difficult questions that I like to ask:

  1. Do your guidelines get used every day?
  2. Are they genuinely useful?

What I hear back, can be condensed down into two anecdotal truths:

  1. Almost all guidelines are a forgotten PDF on a shared drive.
  2. About half aren’t that useful.

Both these things can be hard to swallow when you’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort into developing something like a content playbook, or a voice and tone guide.

I think there are two main reasons why this happens:

  1. You don’t have the right guidelines to help your colleagues with the day-to-day challenges they face.
  2. The guidelines you do have aren’t in the right format; a PDF on a shared drive won’t cut it.

So if you’re in this situation, how do you fix it? The answer is to treat your guidelines like you would a piece of customer-facing content. You need to make sure your guidelines are genuinely useful and inspiring to your internal audience, and you need to make sure they’re usable and and findable too.

The way to go about this is just the same as customer-facing content. Start with audience research; go and talk to your colleagues, ask questions, watch them work. What are they doing, and where are they when they need your guidelines? What are their questions and challenges? Take that research, and use to it make your guidelines work harder for your colleagues, and not the other way round. Make it easy for them, and make your guidelines so useful that people can’t get by without them.

The right way to deliver this will depend a lot on your organisation, and its culture and ways of working. But I’d challenge that a PDF on a shared drive probably isn’t the going to be the answer for any organisation (at least not on its own). A PDF isn’t inspiring, usable and findable.

So what are the alternatives? Here are five ideas that I’ve seen work:

  1. Training, workshops and webinars: running training, whether that’s face-to-face or over the web can help to get people interested and excited in guidelines. It also gives you vital feedback. If you have to have a PDF, this is perfect way to introduce and embed it.
  2. Wikis and websites: building your guidelines as a wiki or website, like MailChimp’s Voice and Tone or Shopify’s Polaris, is a great way to make them easy to bookmark, share, search and navigate.
  3. Interactive tool: making your guidelines interactive is easier than you might think. We turned our style guide into a simple Slackbot – type in the slash command ‘/words’ and the bot uses a web hook to query the wiki version of the guide and return an answer in Slack. We’ve also built a very similar tool as a Chrome extension for a client, as their team do a lot of work in their browser, so having answers there was very useful. Both bots keep a log of all queries, so we can see what people need, and develop or update our guidelines as a result.
  4. Beautiful hard copies: print can have a big impact in a digital world. Create beautiful printed assets and leave them in shared areas, on desks – and people will pick them up and flick through. We did something like this for a client recently, and had to stop Brilliant Noise colleagues from pinching them; even though the guidelines had no use for them, they loved the look of the notebook format we created.
  5. Personality: my final example comes from Clair Byrd. When she was at InVision she created a one-page voice and tone guide, based on the persona of Clark, the company’s CEO. If any of you are InVision customers, you’ll probably feel like you know Clark well – but Clark is actually written by 30 different people, evidence of just how well those guidelines work. (‘Clark copy’ also converts better too.)


If you’d like to ask me any questions about these approaches, or about guidelines in general, get in touch.