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Tone, Voice and Style Guide: Why Your Healthcare Organization Needs to Update

When we start new content projects with healthcare clients, one of the first items we ask for is any content style guide or documentation they have for their internal or agency writers. Some organizations don’t have anything to provide. Some have a bit of writing guidance tucked into their overall brand and design guidelines. And some have fully fleshed-out writing guides, but they haven’t been updated in many years or within the last decade.

Having an accurate, thorough and thoughtful guide for your healthcare organization’s writers is essential. And that’s not just to make my life easier if Perficient becomes your agency partner. The main value of your tone, voice and style guide is to help your team succeed after I’m done with my part of your digital project with us. Let’s discuss why a stand-alone style guide is invaluable to your team’s ongoing content work.

Your guide helps your writers write in a singular voice

It’s perfectly normal for consumers to have a favorite novelist or short-story author. But it would be weird for them to have favorite writers on their local healthcare provider system’s website (apart from your bylined blog authors). Our jobs as writers are to help consumers achieve their healthcare goals and to help our organization achieve business goals. (Ideally, those goals align through thoughtful strategies for personas and journey mapping.) The consumer shouldn’t be reading our work because they like how we write. They should be reading our work to help them do something.

If a consumer starts noticing differences in the tone and style of your organization’s content based on who wrote it, that takes them out of their mission to book an appointment, request a referral, call for more information or whatever the task at hand is. To keep consumers on-task and help them convert, your content writers must present a consistent, appealing tone and voice in line with your organization’s brand standards.

Codifying your brand standards in a centralized, easily accessible digital location is especially important in today’s working environment. With more marketing and content-focused colleagues likely working remotely either all or some of the time, distributing a consistent resource will help your team members stay aligned across their content assignments wherever they are.

Your style guide helps your writers comfort and inspire consumers

Good healthcare content must walk a fine line. We must balance writing from a position of knowledge and authority while also being friendly and compassionate. The consumer must believe your organization knows what it’s talking about when it comes to their condition. But they also must believe you care about them as a person and will be there to help them if they become a patient.

That’s especially tough for most healthcare providers to do in their writing. Most providers have been trained through their academic careers to write in a cool, dispassionate, objective tone that emphasizes clinical detachment from the observations at hand. They most often write in the third person (“he,” “she,” “they,” etc.) and in dry, scientific jargon. That’s perfectly fine for other an audience of likewise educated and brilliant medical experts. But for a consumer audience, that kind of language often comes across as cold and distant. That’s the exact opposite of the warm, friendly tone you need to convey.

Your tone, voice and style guide can help your writers translate concepts and interview notes from your subject-matter experts (SMEs) into relatable, understandable terms that resonate with your consumers. One of the main ways we coach healthcare writers to connect with consumers is by writing directly to them using second-person references (“you,” “your,” etc.). We also recommend writing about themselves in the first person (“we,” “our,” etc.). By capturing this guidance on the tone and voice of your content, you can ensure all your team members highlight what makes your team special in the eyes of patients.

Your style guide helps you reach all your audience members

As I mentioned above, content that comes from your SMEs often includes vocabulary and jargon that is well beyond the health literacy of most healthcare consumers. Your tone, voice and style guide should lay out what the upper limit is for your organization’s content. We typically recommend that our clients write at a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level. But some organizations may need to aim lower. For example, most states have requirements for Medicaid content to be at a sixth-grade reading level or lower.

It’s harder to edit content that’s too complex after it’s already been written. By spelling out your content requirements in your style guide, your writers can save time and editing effort later. And if your users don’t have to work as hard to understand the content they’re reading, they’re more likely to convert.

Your style guide defines your sources of truth

You’re probably not going through every word or phrase that could appear in your healthcare content and determining where your organization stands on it. Nor should you! There are several resources that do a great job of providing this sort of granular detail. Instead, your tone, voice and style guide should define which one of these will be your go-to resource for questions the guide doesn’t answer.

Because so many of our healthcare marketing clients come from the worlds of journalism and advertising, we often see client organizations go with the “AP Stylebook” as their source of truth for questions not included in their style guides. Others prefer “The Chicago Manual of Style,” particularly for organizations with a strong academic background. Whichever your team prefers — or if you reach for other reference guides — your tone, voice and style guide should make clear what your writers should turn to so they can maintain your consistent style.

Your style guide should be a living document

Too often, clients who take the time to put together a tone, voice and style guide look on the finished product with pride, stick it on a shelf (or in a digital repository) and never update it again. Then, when the next rebranding or replatforming effort comes around, they realize their style guide doesn’t reflect their current content needs.

It’s a situation we see all the time. And it’s one that really shouldn’t ever happen. As you encounter new questions and get new guidance on your team’s content work, you need to update your guide to match. For example, we’re seeing more organizations getting onboard with a shift away from “he or she” references in favor of “their,” which is more inclusive of people who prefer nonbinary pronouns. Capturing that sort of nuance in your style guide can help you avoid the need for corrections, apologies, hurt feelings and lost opportunities for conversions.

The process of updating your style guide should be ongoing. Ideally, you should review your guide at least annually, if not more often. You should also review and update your style guide as you join new platforms (e.g., TikTok) or as you start creating new types of content to make sure all your content team members are speaking in a unified voice. Appointing a committee of your healthcare content team members to look for where to add guidance or revise earlier entries can help you lessen the need for major overhauls or emergency rewrites.

Take on your content with style

Updating or creating a tone, voice and style guide for your healthcare organization can feel like one more on a heap of projects you never have time to finish. But you don’t have to tackle this one alone. We’re here to help.

Perficient’s team of healthcare-exclusive content strategists work with healthcare marketing teams nationwide on customized solutions to their content needs. We can craft a thoughtful tone, voice and style guide to help you keep your team on track and producing the great content you need to keep consumers interested. Contact us to learn how.

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Michael Adkins, Senior Content Strategist, Digital Health Strategy

As part of Perficient's Digital Health Strategy team, Michael partners with healthcare organizations to create informative, conversion-centered content for a variety of applications, including websites and blogs. Michael writes content that highlights clients’ service-line offerings, expertise in unique treatments, differentiators in competitive markets and additional factors that are important to patients.

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