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What's Behind Your BrandBook Title: 

What’s Behind Your Brand?: A Style Guide for Humanizing Your Content


Jen O’Ryan, PhD

Publishing Information: 

PYP Academy Press, 2024

Link to Buy Book: 



Frustrated by the lack of style guides that cover how to authentically represent humans? I was. So I wrote one. There is a seemingly endless supply of resources on grammatical rules and mechanics. But very few provide guidance on how, or more importantly why, to design for inclusion, diversity, and representation. This book dives into the nuance of avoiding issues like bias, inequities, erasure, appropriation, stigma, and stereotypes. How word choice + position, proportion, and placement of images can convey unintended meanings. Alternative options, practical examples, and the “why” behind the “how” are included throughout. The result is a resource for creating content that brings people in, without shutting others out.

Author Bio: 

Dr. Jen O’Ryan specializes in Inclusion, Diversity, Belonging, and Representation. She works with business leaders to remove bias, stereotypes, inequities, stigma, appropriation, and similar issues from their messaging, content, and experiences. Jen combines a PhD in Human Behavior with 15 years of leading organizational change, designing new experiences for customers, and transforming enterprise-wide workflows.

Book Excerpt: 

If people can adapt and incorporate 14 different words to order coffee, they can do the same to recognize the humanity of another person.

Words mean things, and these meanings are enhanced by social context. Creating a bias that we accept as inherently normal.

When the absence of something is expected or common, it’s perceived to be “normal.” So consider who is being represented and how.


Have you ever watched the show Bar Rescue and wondered why people don’t do anything about the raw chicken being stored at room temperature? That’s what reading through an organization’s outdated content can feel like. As though things started out with the best of intentions, only to end up on a digital shelf wondering where it all went wrong.

Style guides provide an established set of rules around structure and mechanics (comma splices, avoiding repetitive word usage, when to semicolon, etc.). They create a framework for how an organization communicates and represents itself to others. Guides can also keep us from having to make decisions. The rules are already there just waiting for our message and ideas to spill out over a template.

A downside to relying on guides is that eventually the world changes. And if no one is tending to the rules, they stagnate. Especially if rules weren’t designed to support insights from diverse perspectives. Then, these outdated rules persist as something that just “is.” 


Why I Decided to Write This

I was driving back from a long day in the desert, trying to stay awake by listening to an audiobook on famous “murder houses” (stop judging). The next chapter started—highlighting a series of unsolved crimes and home invasions. There’s something disconcerting besides the seriously messed up story unfolding over my speakers. Whenever the narrator (who is also the author) mentioned the perpetrator, it was with the pronoun “he.” As in, “The killer was never caught, and his identity remains a mystery.”


So, there I was, minding my own business and listening to an audiobook about murder houses. Except I couldn’t. Because every time the narrator used “he” when referring to an unknown person or persons, it pulled me out of the story. Either the author of this book has secret insights as to the suspect’s identity (which would make the crime solvable), or the writer intentionally decided to use “he” to represent an unknowable aspect of the story.

“GAH! Why isn’t there a style guide for writing about gender?!” I shouted into the inky darkness surrounding me. OK, it wasn’t that dramatic. I was pulling off the freeway into a suburb of Henderson, Nevada. There were probably streetlights or the comforting blast of neon from a nearby casino. That’s not the point.

I realized there isn’t a style guide to provide the why and how of designing inclusive content. Not only from a use of pronoun perspective, but how to better represent the experience of being human in our designs and products. A guide on how to create content that is welcoming and available across a broader audience.

From a writing perspective, there is a seemingly endless supply on how to craft a message. There are resources on grammatical rules, improving accessibility, and optimizing for various devices. But very few that provide guidance on how, or more importantly why, to design for inclusion. Or as in the audiobook example, at least ways to avoid being exclusionary.

So I decided to create one.

A resource designed to guide you through areas that can detract from your message, or unintentionally create barriers. All while preserving your unique expression, and without overcorrecting into something devoid of creative, impulsive, meaningful art.


All the Different Ways of Being

My second thought as I pulled into the driveway was, “Where is the editor and why didn’t they catch this?”

So while this book is geared toward all of you amazing (there it is again) content creators, it’s also designed for those who love and support them.

People who publish, evaluate, or make purchasing decisions for their employee-facing content. As well as those behind the scenes who edit, proofread, and manage across the entire design process. It involves humans reviewing from different perspectives to spot potential barriers in your product.

People tend to apply criteria or somehow “measure” the inclusiveness and diversity of their content, which can result in predictable, formulaic patterns. This approach can also lead to objectification, stereotyping, and one-dimensional representation. Instead, consider “all the different ways of being.”

What do I mean by “all the different ways of being”? Good question. This is the term I use to describe all the different expressions of being human. It’s an attempt to encapsulate the complexity of our human experiences because we’re never just one thing.

Think of these identities, segments, levels of ability, worldviews, belief systems, lived experiences, and ways of interacting with the world as infinite possible combinations. Each of those possible outcomes is influenced by when and where we were born, how we grew up, what resources or influences we had available to us, which early messages we internalized, and what the world told us each of these elements meant.

Each of us is a culmination of experiences. A unique blend of who we are in the world, influenced by our various roles, and the innate human qualities that make us . . . well, us.

It’s a lot, I know. Organizations promote the value of authenticity—showing up as ourselves and creating space for others to do the same. The other side of that authenticity is “seeing” and reflecting people as who they are in the world.

So rather than try to define a list that will invariably leave someone out, I invite you to think about it as all the different ways of being. A multitude of possibilities. Moving through the world in ways you haven’t had to consider. Yet.

The approaches to creating inclusive content that I’m describing throughout this book are one part of a much larger toolkit. Figuring out the ideal approach for your content depends on individual goals, available resources, and degree of control over the finished product.

This guide also provides direction on key elements of reviewing and creating content that reaches a broader audience—authentically—while staying consistent with your voice,[1] style, and alignment with your values. I’m not here to change your belief systems. This is about exploring the things that can detract from your message and alternatives to consider along the way.

[1] “Voice” in this sense describes one’s unique communication mode and ways of articulating ideas. This is not intended to limit or erase those who express themselves in ways other than vocally or in spoken language. Different ways of describing this, and similar words with ableist undertones, are noted throughout the book.

We’ll cover words, images, and phrases that are (however unintentionally)

  • offensive
  • grounded in, or perpetuating, stereotypes
  • damaging or harmful
  • misrepresenting or appropriating cultures and/or other ways of being (typically marginalized or historically excluded populations)

I’m also going to invite you to notice the absences. Who isn’t being represented or considered in the design and final product? Bias is often demonstrated by what is not there.


Chapter Two: Things to Consider, Part Two

Words mean things. It’s good to get that one out of the way. While we might have a common definition available for individual words formed through a series of characters, our interpretations of their intended meanings are influenced by other factors.

Body language, tone, and social or cultural subtext all have an impact on derived meaning. If you’ve traveled to Texas and had someone say, “Well, bless your heart,” you know what I’m talking about.

Our brains make meaning from context by combining surrounding words and images. Supporting words and imagery enhance our understanding of the key message. You may have observed this when struggling through a new language or watching someone learn to read. If you encounter an unfamiliar word, the first impulse is to search for context from what else is available.

Ladies and Dandies

Our understanding of conventional writing styles and business language has evolved in some ways, but not all.

Let’s go back to social subtext for a minute. While waiting to catch a flight at the airport recently, I was having an animated conversation with my travel companion about inclusive greetings. True story: My personal and professional goal is to convince Delta Airlines to stop saying “ladies and gentlemen” at the beginning of every announcement. Exciting, I know.

The problem with “ladies and gentlemen,” other than the exclusion of those who are neither ladies nor gentlemen, is the social implications associated with “ladies.”

While “ladies” might not seem like a loaded term, it comes with an underlying set of social expectations: acceptable behaviors, degree of agency, mannerisms, speaking style, amount of space one can take up.

You might be asking yourself, but what about “gentlemen”? Doesn’t that term also have social expectations and baggage? Sure, right up until you are deciding between visiting a “ladies’ club” or a “gentlemen’s club.” Do these hypothetical clubs create similar mental images?

Yeah, my colleague didn’t agree with my example either. So I took a different approach.

If “ladies and gentlemen” is acceptable and without social subtext, what if the greeting was “ladies and dandies”?

For those unfamiliar with the term, Merriam-Webster defines dandy as “of, relating to, or suggestive of a man who gives exaggerated attention to personal appearance” (MW, n.d.). includes this in its definition of “dandy,” a name for a man who pays great attention to dress and fashion and often dresses with a flamboyant style” (ENC, n.d.).

That lands a little differently, doesn’t it?

The point was easier for my colleague to relate to when he was represented by an image that was completely foreign to his identity, his sense of self. It doesn’t have to be dandies. Pick any other generalized representation that limits, inaccurately depicts, or doesn’t reflect the population. More specifically, it doesn’t convey your intended message. This is default setting, go-to wording.

Words mean things, and these meanings are enhanced by social context. Creating a bias that we accept as inherently normal.

For those who are consistently reflected in ways that align with their identity, it can be easy to forget how intrinsically one’s sense of self is connected to how people are represented at the macro (societal) level; until they find themselves represented by an image that’s discordant with their identity.

The words we use and encounter shape how we think and perceive. They tell us the social space we are expected to occupy, who is represented and in what way, and how to interact with others. Words and expressions that inhabit our lives influence how we interpret ourselves (and others) in the world.

The influence of social context is easier to relate to when applied to words and phrases from a few generations ago. Flip through any book on writing standards from the 1970s. Starting a message with “Dear Sir or Madam” was the pinnacle of English business communication. Anything less was considered unprofessional.

If it feels awkward to start an email with “Dear Sir or Madam,” imagine a similar response when using “ladies and gentlemen.”

This is where we tap into that incredible capacity and power of language. You’re aiming for intentional word choice. What, specifically, are you trying to convey? How might this be experienced by someone who is not you?

Delta, if you’re listening, might I suggest the following alternatives: “Hello, Delta passengers.” “Good morning and welcome!” “Hey, Peeps!” Or just start talking. We know who we are.


It’s a Design Flaw, Not a “Blind Spot”

The expression “blind spot” is often used to describe how bias blocks or influences our perspective. I think this misses the point. It also frames our bias as somehow being separate from us.

An obstruction or limitation indicates that you can’t see it. Bias means that you don’t see it. There is a capacity for awareness, but not the exposure (through a lifetime of personal lived experience, early messages, and multigenerational influences) to notice it. We’re about to change all that.

Design flaws are those pesky things that might technically work, but don’t support what the person needs to accomplish. These flaws range anywhere from annoying to fatal.

John Spacey describes these as, “A design that fails to meet requirements or serve customer needs. . . In many cases, they introduce unnecessary risk, damage brand reputation, or result in poor product ratings and sales” (Spacey, 2017).

Problematic content, exclusionary word choice, bias, and erasure all fit into this description. Unless the intended user experience was to exclude, cause harm, or perpetuate stereotypes. In which case, you probably need a different book instead of this one.

Thinking about these examples as design flaws does a couple of things. First, it diffuses some of the emotionally charged resistance. Design flaws are objective and have a business justification behind correcting them.

Remember, not everyone is coming from the same point of the journey. Do I wish we could just point out systemic racism in materials and have it fixed? Yes. But if it were that easy, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation.

Second, considering problematic content or design as flaws makes it part of the quality control process. It’s a quality issue with potential harm to users and likely to have a negative impact on reviews, market expansion, and brand reputation.

This approach also creates new opportunities for review points, cross-checks, and a system that can adapt to future needs. As our understanding evolves, so do the mechanisms that support our products.

It starts by understanding resistance and how to bring others along.


Are you starting to wonder what this has to do with a style guide on content? People can have very big feelings about grammar changes. Take a few minutes to do an internet search on the “Oxford comma debate.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Right?! Big feelings!

Full disclosure, I am firmly on #TeamOxfordComma. Even before it became the determining factor in a 2017 litigation that resulted in an award of $5 million to plaintiffs in a dispute involving unpaid overtime (BBC, 2022).

Now imagine the level of controversy sparked by suggesting the default pronoun should be something other than “he.” Exactly. Language shapes how we interpret the world. The degree to which people gravitate toward or away from challenging structures varies greatly.

And don’t kid yourself into thinking this is a generational thing. We’re only one generation away from when left-handed kids were forced to write with their nondominant hands. Because obviously writing with your left hand leads to demonic possession (MW, 2016).

Language evolves, as does our approach to constructing a message. Advertisements from previous decades are perfect examples of what used to be considered “acceptable.” If not acceptable, at least condoned. Or the opposition was silenced by those with more power.


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