Style – A Pursuit of Accuracy or Authenticity?

Poet Richard Eberhart explained that “style is the perfection of a point of view.”

His comment illustrates an essential component of communications work: when using words to inform the public or explain a position, the choices we make in choosing our language are inherently political and therefore powerful.

Communications professionals are responsible to our clients to explain their ideas in the clearest and most accessible fashion possible. We should (and hopefully do) balance myriad factors, such as the desired audience, client ethos, and current events, to create a message or comment that achieves this goal.

We are, however, bound as a profession to do so using the industry standard – AP Style, “fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and journalistic style” and the definitive standard for any journalist and communications professional.

However, in today’s increasingly diverse and diffuse media environment, does an internal or personal style make more sense than AP Style?

While not a call to suddenly put commas where you wish or to create your own spelling, any professional should constantly evaluate whether using these guidelines best illustrates their message, clearly communicates their client’s position, and, most importantly, is fundamentally accurate.

Style guides are, at their most basic level, a codified reference on how to best describe the truth. We know, however, that this search for accuracy is not always a straight forward process.

Take for example AP’s recently updated guidelines for the reference of transgender or non-binary individuals that use the pronoun “they” in reference to themselves, rather than the historical he/she or him/her.

While lauded by many, this change also includes qualified guidance to limit using the singular ‘they’ where possible to avoid confusion, prompting criticism.

Yet, does that silence or miscommunicate an individual’s identity?

This is only one, hyper-political example of the tension between accuracy and consistency, but it illustrates the underlying decision making that any journalist or communications professional must make.

Most outlets will maintain an internal style guide – NPR’s ombudsman’s memos are an excellent distillation of style decisions and debates – that allows for some deviation from AP while retaining something close to standardization.

Communications professionals should strike a similar balance where appropriate, keeping three overarching goals in mind:

  1. Appropriateness: Is this change appropriate for my audience, for my organization, for the setting? Does the change sound authentic?
  1. Audience: Who is this for? Would the target reader understand what I am trying to convey? Would a casual reader understand what I am writing and, perhaps most importantly, could my words be misconstrued or offensive if removed from context?
  1. Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy: Guidelines are a search for the clearest and most concise way to tell the truth and report the facts. As communications professionals we are similarly held to this standard of objectivity. Deviating from a style guide should be a purposeful act, an effort to better illustrate our point.

Communications need not sacrifice authenticity or accuracy to satisfy an artificial standard, however sacrosanct.

If our goal is to best communicate for our client, that may require violating AP Style. We owe it to our clients to defend their interests with every tool in our arsenal. Style and accuracy are paramount in this effort.