It's the season for style

It is hard not to be electrified when the rain subsides and the flowers bloom splendidly, screaming "spring!!!" at the top of their lungs. I turn into a nineteenth century novelist, and the air smells sweet enough to forget about the news.

This week, I scrolled and swiped through photos of the Met Gala dresses, as I do every year, slightly annoyed at the real estate the event took at the top of my feed. I follow many independent artists and photographers, but the algorithm wanted me to see the dresses, and there they were, sticks and birds and branded content. I love haute couture and beautiful people, but have mixed feelings at the way this even is pushed at me now.

As an individual, I love style. I'm a Warhol fan and a downtown kid at heart, and I adore personal style. I adore writing style, too. I love a stylish filter over pretty much any mundane activity, and I dig artists like Wes Anderson and Belle & Sebastian, who eschew "eras" and really commit to teasing out the limits and possibilities of one type of style to hone in on meaning and human connection.

Not everyone needs to reinvent themselves with every life change; some can just grow deeper into deliberately developed stylish roots.

But in business and content strategy, I shy away from style, or at least the enforcement of it. In my experience, when we talk about "style," content folks often get shoved into debating the minutiae of voice and tone while the whole big idea of the thing gets watered down. And above all, I hate being a grammar cop, which is how style is expressed at some organization.

Style matters, but how we express style at work has changed significantly over my career. So I'm quite excited for this month.

What is style in the business of content?

This May, we are all set to discuss the fifth area of The Content Technologist approach: Style. In this aspect of the approach, an organization hones in on how its values and content uniquely represent brand at a whole.

With content strategy, we decide what dimensions are important in how we communicate with the world. Through style, we embroider those decisions into our organization's words and appearances, choosing what to enforce, what to highlight, and what to leave behind in the back closet, out of the spotlight.

A gif from Phantom Thread of a woman presenting herself in a fashionable dress
Style is what's stitched into the dress.

In business, style is the aesthetic expression of aligned organizational values and culture. Style is often what people think of when they describe "content" because they can see it on the surface of the entity. Strong strategic content goes much deeper than style, but one can read a business purely based on the outward expression of style, a dimension some confuse with brand or even business as a whole.

Color choices, typography, packaging design and materials, vocabulary, voice, tone, media chosen, and narrative approach are all style decisions (not content decisions). The choice to write well, or to write like ChatGPT: that is a style decision. Whether you film or illustrate your offerings: a style decision. Prioritizing public relations over search optimization could be seen as a style choice. Shouting loudly or stealthily conniving via DMs: also a style choice.

At its best, style reflects and amplifies the values of a business as they appear through communications efforts. The effect of style doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to work over a long period of time. Style connects seemingly disparate parts to the whole of brand.

Ideally, style represents communications guidelines that could be cut from one business and applied to another, like an Instagram filter. But for most companies, style reflects its employees' individuality as often as it reflects collaborative brand-first decision-making.

When I started as a publishing intern 20 years ago, I thought my only role as an English major with editorial skills would be to create and enforce style guides. But, thankfully, the 40-page style handbooks of the past can be left in the drawers where they were already gathering dust. Because now we have bespoke software, which has its own concept of style built in.

Later this month, we'll explore how computers interpret and execute style decisions. Word processors at enterprises worldwide have the capability to execute complex formatting and style preferences, but many companies don't even use the most basic features to make fonts and headlines consistent. Some AI-generated content is imbued with "tone"; other AI-assisted style tools help the design-challenged among us select branded colors.

Though asset managers, grammar checkers, and pattern libraries are not the sexiest software, they're often the lowest hanging fruit for introducing content automation to any organization. In a couple of weeks, we'll take a look at what's out there and what's useful.