Consistency is important to engineers and architects. You can often recognize the distinct look of an engineer’s plans or an architect’s drawings if you’ve seen their work a few times. The same rigor should be applied to ensuring a consistent presentation of the firm’s digital and printed materials including proposals, resumes, website, external e-mails, and letters. After all, the AEC industry is about paying attention to minute details.
Years ago, I served as the editor for a trade publication that served the highway/heavy construction industry. Our corporate office required all regional editors to strictly follow the AP Style Guide for most of the printed media you consume today. The goal was to make sure our magazines had a consistent writing style. Since the writing was technical, we also used the Means Illustrated Construction Dictionary.
It is surprising how often I see technical terms such as “cast-in-place” or “pre-stressed” written incorrectly. The errors are often as simple as leaving out the dash. While these are great reference books for a trade publication editor, they are overkill for architects and engineers.
So how can your firm ensure consistency in a reasonable fashion?
One way to promote consistency in your printed materials is to create your own style guide, which includes frequently used terms. As a general rule, 20 to 40 terms should suffice for most firms. A shorter list will result in a higher level of compliance.
Circulate the guide to your staff, but realize that most of your billable people may not comply. The greatest challenge of ensuring consistency in communication is enforcement. With that said, it is crucial to make sure that your marketing and clerical staff are enforcing the style guide since they are typically the last set of hands on outgoing documents. Consider them the filter for all external communications.
Your style guide should also incorporate the proper writing of client names. A surefire way to detour your proposal to the circular file is to misuse the name of an agency. II have seen firms, for example, writing “PENNDOT” instead of “PennDOT” in reference to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The former was used by the department years ago, but the latter is the currently adopted name. Capitalizing the letters improperly may seem like a minor offense, but the client may not see it that way.
Engineers and architects are not communicators as a general rule. There are, however, exceptions to that rule. Some of your especially diligent employees may be motivated enough to enhance their communication skills.
Invest in a copy of “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White to share with your staff. Many writers consider this the ultimate resource on clear and concise writing. It also explains the proper use of punctuation and commonly misused words. At less than 100 pages, it can be read from cover to cover, or simply used as a reference guide,
While owners are not hiring your firm for its written communication skills, the way you communicate your qualifications and interact with clients serves as a window into your culture. If your written words as inconsistent, the client may assume that your plans are as well.
Your ultimate goal should be to convey professionalism in every written and digital document that leaves your office. Otherwise, you leave the door open for a client to pass judgment — and that is simply not good for business.