How to create a copy style guide in 90 minutes

When you first launch your company, you usually start here:

  • No clear brand personality / voice
  • No clear guidelines on how to write
  • No branding docs to share with new employees, investors, or contractors

After a while (when it becomes painfully obvious that you need the above), you’ll go one of three ways:

  • Get started, but give up halfway through
  • Put it on the back-burner and say, “we’ll do it next quarter”
  • Hire an expensive branding agency to do it for you

And no matter which road you go down, the results are usually the same:

  • The process is time-consuming
  • The process is expensive
  • The finished product is not really what you wanted

These are just some of the reasons startups and new businesses put off branding for as long as humanly possible.

But the catch is, without a strong brand, you could be leaving money on the table. For example, having a strong brand can help you:

  • Better communicate your product / message
  • Better communicate with your audience
  • Standout in a sea of competitors
  • Increase your brand recognition

Okay, so you know branding is important, but how do you go from “Macintosh computers” to “Apple” without spending tons of time, money, or hiring a fancy branding agency?

Quite easily, in fact, and I can teach you how to do it in just 90 minutes.

But why listen to me? What do I know about branding (or how to do it in what seems like an impossible amount of time)?

As a conversion copywriter who specializes in branding, I’ve led dozens of branding workshops and created countless copy style guides to reflect the output of the sessions. I’ve used those documents to craft language for the companies I’ve worked for, or to oversee their work.

In the beginning, creating these style guides was a very time-intensive process, but over the years, I’ve come up with a 3-step process that can get you exactly what you’re looking for in just 90 minutes.

In fact, I’ve laid out those steps (and the time stamps) below to prove that it’s totally possible. To help illustrate the process, I’m going to use one of my clients, withcoach.com, as an example.

Alright, let’s dive in!

Step 1: Answer some questions (30 min)

Like any questionnaire or quiz, this is the fun part.

This is the time you get to spend thinking about who you are, what you stand for, the promises you want to make to your customers, where you want to be down the road, and so on.

This step is designed to help you get clarity on the core of your brand, so (a) the rest of this process will run smoothly, and (b) the output will match whatever is in your head.

When I work with my clients , I send them a custom questionnaire that’s about 30 questions long. In it, I ask questions like:

(1) How do you describe the business to someone unfamiliar with the company?

(2) What problem does your brand solve for your customers? Why does your customer need what you’re offering?

(3) When you talk to consumers, what “role” are are you playing (i.e. — helpful friend, knowledgeable expert, etc)?

The examples above are just a small sample of the questions I use to get to the core identity of a brand.

In the full questionnaire, I ask you questions that probe your brain in new ways to help you come up with genuine, insightful information that will be key to creating your brand identity.

Interested in the full 30-question questionnaire? You can get it here.

If you just want to know which areas of your brand you should focus on vs the specific questions that will get you there, read on (covered in Step 3).

Step 2: Distill your responses (30 min)

Once you have your responses, it’s time to go back through them and look for underlying patterns.

To do this, I like to put all of the responses into a Google Doc, then use the highlight tool to pick out key words and phrases that best answer the questions.

To give you an idea of how this is done, below are two examples which are from a recent branding questionnaire I did for a wellness company (the two questions are not related or sequential):

Branding questionnaire — example 1

Branding questionnaire — example 2

As you can see, I need the long-form responses to get the bigger picture, but I really only need a few key words and phrases to find “the gold” that I’m looking for.

I invite you to do the same thing for your own questionnaire — read through each response, while scanning for the most relevant bits related to the core of your brand. When you see something juicy, highlight it, and save it for Step 3.

Step 3: Compile into a 1-page template (30 min)

Now that you’ve got your gold, it’s time to pick through the most important information and compile it into a 1-page doc that’s easy to read and understand.

Ideally, this is what you should be aiming for in terms of clarity and simplicity:

Now, every brand may be a little different, but in my experience, there are really only 10 things you want to focus on when it comes to your copy style guide:

(1) Mission statement (purpose)

(2) Tagline (positioning)

(3) Values

(4) Brand role

(5) Brand muse

(6) Personality traits

(7) Tone of voice qualities

(8) What we say

(9) What we don’t say

(10) Final words of advice (or a small set of rules)

If you can pull from your responses a sentence for each of the above categories, you can complete this exercise within 30 minutes.

Remember, if you have your responses from the questionnaire handy, ALL of the information you need is already there — you just have to mine and transcribe it.

The only stuff that’s not directly in your responses, would be the “We do say vs We don’t say” stuff, as well as the “dos and don’ts.”

But don’t worry, here’s how to figure that out:

We do say

For the language in the “We do say” section, I grabbed existing copy from the withcoach.com site, which I wrote and admit, is easier than writing it from scratch. But you really only need a few examples to illustrate the key differences, which shouldn’t take you all that long (and hey, if you need help, that’s what copywriters are for ? ).

We don’t say

For the “We don’t say” part, I simply went to our competitor’s site and snagged some language that doesn’t jive with our style. I’d recommend you do the same, or simply make up a few phrases that are totally off-tone/style (though, competitor language is usually best, as it’s more realistic than what you may make up).

Dos and Don’ts

For the DO’s and DON’Ts (aka “If all else fails…), you just want to focus on coming up with a few rules that reinforce the information you’ve laid out above — it’s also a great opportunity to really showcase the contrast between yourself and your competitors.

Template

In terms of a 1-pager template, I used Canva to find a FREE “infographic” template that worked for what I needed. Of course, if you’re a designer or have a designer on your team, she or he should be able to layout the information beautifully with your logo, colors, and all that jazz (shoutout to Mackenzie Child from withcoach.com! ? ).

Ready to create your own copy style guide?

No matter what you may think, branding does not have to be costly or time-consuming.

All you need is about 30 minutes to think about your brand/what you want it to be, 30 minutes to identify the key information, and another 30 to make it look nice.

Yes, you may spend more time on the questionnaire (or other parts) than the 30 minutes I’ve allotted, but I’ve had clients successfully complete everything in 90 minutes (or less), so if it’s taking you a really long time to, you’re probably overthinking it.

Of course, it also helps to have the questionnaire handy, which will only expedite the entire process ? .

Have questions or thoughts about branding / creating a copy style guide? Comment below or reach out directly: annie1maguire@gmail.com.

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