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Your internal comms style guide is about clarity, not only grammar

Generated image! A catalogue of hats on dummy heads, as if a victorian poster or page.

Your internal comms style guide is about clarity, not only grammar

Style matters; design is how something works; writing is thinking; writing is designing.

I often help organisations modernise their in-house style guide or start building their first. Here is a summary of what I’ve learned about getting it right.

How we announce and explain things is almost as important as the things themselves. Whatever the culture, whatever the voice and tone of daily communications,  the announcements and news promoted by Internal Comms, my focus is usefulness and clarity.

For usefulness, I exhort you to send less, to publish less, and to always consider what you’re asking colleagues to do once they’ve read the piece. If it’s just for ‘awareness’, then can you quantify the value to the org, the value to the audiences?

For clarity, I offer consistency as a tool. For Internal Comms this can include a style guide, so that the IC team and contributing writers from around the org can agree, or adhere to, certain rules of writing and formatting. I’m thinking about communiques of all kinds, but my focus is often the intranet. This is not to say that there isn’t room for lots of diverse voices across channels within the org. Nor is it about everyone speaking in one voice, like the BBC in the 1950s. It’s about clarity (comprehension) and, I say, ease of reading (readability).

Some of the rulings we make are arbitrary, but many are steeped in either readers’ expectations, readability research, or the need to avoid ambiguity.

As style guides themselves need to be easy to read and easy to refer to, I usually avoid explaining why a rule has been set. But I might have to justify a rule or two to my client, the IC pro.


Bold of you!

I occasionally come across intranet pages where half the text is in bold. The publisher tells me it’s crucial. They might even set some text in red (something I cannot condone for any non-life-threatening situation). If everything is emphasised, nothing is. So here are my styling rules for emphasis.

Use bold and italics sparingly. Key words in bold will draw the eye, helping people spot the main topics and what’s important on this page.

Whole sentences in bold are as ugly and superfluous as using all caps. If you’re absolutely certain a lot of bold is needed, then embolden the action words as well as the key topic words.


Italics, in my book, are not for key words, but for words that explain or emphasise.  When I say emphasise here, I mean the way we say a word, like the difference between ‘the queen’ and ‘the queen’. As italics are harder to read for many people, use sparingly and try to avoid them. Type experts and font fanatics often increase the text size of italicised words because when seen against regular text, italicised text can appear smaller. You can’t really do this in regular comms (email and intranet), so be aware italic words are harder to read (smaller, fainter).

I can imagine using italics to denote that something is a set phrase, a known phrase. So I would welcome seeing an internal initiative that uses the phrase ‘from me to we’ in italics. Otherwise it’s perfectly possible to read the phrase as a meaningless word salad. When clarity demands, we do what is necessary.

Never use bold and italics together. It’s too much, it’s nearly as desperate as all caps or red text. Consider the elegance of evening jewellery. While five bangles per arm can be fun during the day, when out on the town nobody wants to look like Mr. T with overlapping necklaces and a ring on each finger. We pare down for greater impact. (Yes, darling, I’m an officer of the Fashion Police.)


Underlines are reserved for hyperlinks (why do I still say ‘hyperlinks’ instead of just ‘links’?) and that’s that. Do not use underlines anywhere else, not even for headings (unless the heading is a link as well, obviously).


I can’t think of a company that uses title case for headings, but I know lots of people who do, and can’t stop!

We use sentence case for headings not only to appear more human but to allow names to stand out. So we capitalise the first word (of course) but nothing else unless we hit a department’s or person’s name, or acronym, or some other ‘real thing’ that is a proper noun.

We do not use bold or italics in headings at all unless there’s a remarkable reason to emphasise one or two key words.

We do not use underlines on any heading unless it is a link. This will likely happen in your email news digests. But for an intranet page or news article, I think it’s more useful to put the link into the text, into the sentences below the subheading. Let the heading do its one job.

And for the sake of all that is good, please put a subheading in even in your short articles. Let people know that you’ve changed topic or are homing into the details or context. Put in a subheading and use it to explain a key concept, because some people will only read your headings, bullet points, and link text.

Don’t justify your alignment

Do not justify your text aside from allowing left alignment. (Please excuse me, I am discussing Western writing and English here; and so I’m only considering left-to-right reading.)

What I mean is, do not justify your text to make the right side of your page or column aligned because you think it looks neat and you’ve seen books or print magazines do it. Lots of books and magazines don’t, and here’s why we shouldn’t:

The ‘rag right’ or ‘ragged right’ as it’s called helps the eye / brain know where it is. Reading is a not a smooth process; the eye saccades across lines, and words. The brain recognises word shapes before it bothers trying to identify letters. Reading is not smooth, linear, or logical. It is bumpy, jumpy, and an estimation. By not justifying the right side, you leave interesting shapes for the eye to catch on.

A two-column reading space

Don’t publish reference content or news articles as full-width pages – where the text goes fully across the page. A full-width page is too wide for comfortable reading on all but the smallest laptop screens.

A two-column layout.
A perfect two-column layout in SharePoint.

To reduce the reading width to something comfortable that aids reading speed and topic comprehension, develop page templates that use at least two columns – one wide for your body text, and one narrow for ancillary supporting content, such as links, images, and concise instruction.

Do not misinterpret my advice to mean ‘publish your comms in two columns’ because that is a very print magazine thing to do and is often wholly inappropriate for digital.

If you publish your 700-word text in two columns, you will force the reader to scroll up once they’ve finished reading the first column. Dreadful!

If you publish your 350-word text in two columns you might well believe you’ve avoided the ‘must scroll back up’ problem but what you’re doing is bringing ambiguity into the intranet. You’re making the reader consider what their next step is – they might have to check if there’s more down below (even if there isn’t). It’s unnecessary cognitive effort when a consistent approach to page layout can bring calm to the chaos that sprawling, poorly governed intranets can become.

(There are other, different rules for home page / landing page layout.)

TOAPs – text on a pic

This is real, editable text over an image.

Don’t put text in an image using image editing software. Such text is not readable by assistive tech, such as SharePoint’s Immersive Reader. Further, such text is not easily editable, perhaps impossible to edit, in the future, so you’re creating future problems for little reason.

SharePoint can add real text as an overlay to images, so do that for readable, editable text over an image.

I’m talking about regular messaging and intranet publishing. I don’t mean to persuade you not to do campaign branding, or not to publish diagrams and flowcharts. Such important images just need clear captions and full explanations in the body text.

That’s a choice

Every style decision is debatable; and even if everyone involved agrees that the principle is to be clear and unambiguous you can still end up making arbitrary or traditional decisions. For example, around the formatting for dates and the use of full stops in abbreviations.

So have the debates and sleep on some decisions, but stick to the principles of clarity and usefulness. Stick to caring about the end user (of email, of the intranet) and the reading experience. Care about your colleagues across the organisation who are not like you. You are not the user, you are not the audience.

When a client tells me everyone knows ‘what SLT stands for’ and ‘how to contact HR’ I like to empathise with new starters and people with English as a second language. I think empathising with these two audiences, championing them really, helps us all challenge or drop some of our assumptions. Clients will still tell me “oh they have their managers to explain” but I think that’s rude and lazy, and non-inclusive.

I know many people are responsible for publishing intranet content beyond the core comms team. I believe that a consistent intranet offers an easier end-user experience, and a style guide is not the answer but a tool to help the IC team lead comms and lead the intranet.

Additional minutes invested in digital comms and intranet pages creates much needed value for hundreds of colleagues.

Wedge Black

I support ClearBox in everything we do online, and I assist clients that are considering redeveloping or replacing their intranet platform. I worked in global and regional organisations as the intranet manager as part of the comms team, before becoming an intranet consultant. I'm the founder of the Intranet Now annual conference. I’ve tweeted about intranets and comms for fifteen years now.

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