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Our Addiction to Acronyms, and What We Can Do About It

Type: Articles
Topic: Writing and Editing
By Gabrielle Dolan
13 September 2019
Credit: istockphoto.com/tzahiV

I started my career in IT at NAB, as a TCO in FES, which looked after NAB’s ATM and POS network. Did you understand that sentence? My guess is no. You may have deciphered some of those acronyms and abbreviations, but probably not all of them.

Now, let me rephrase it.

I started my career in information technology at National Australia Bank, as a trainee computer operator in front-end systems, which looked after National Australia Bank’s automatic teller machines and point-of-sale network.

Which is easier to understand? The second explanation without acronyms, I expect.

One of the main reasons we create acronyms is to make communication easier and more efficient. For example, most people would refer to an automatic teller machine as an ATM or the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the FBI.

But are acronyms, abbreviations or initialisms more efficient? In the vast majority of cases, I would suggest that they are not.

Designed to confuse

To understand why acronyms are sometimes at odds with efficiency, it is worth looking at some history. The word acronym only entered the English language in 1940. Acronyms gained popularity as a form of communication during the World War II. The idea was that when the enemy intercepted a message containing lots of acronyms, it would be difficult to understand. So, we have adopted a style of communication that was invented to make it harder to understand the meaning.

One of the most critical jobs in business is to communicate in a way that is both engaging and understandable. Yet, more times than not, the default language of the business world is acronyms.

Unfortunately, acronyms become inefficient when people don’t understand what they mean or have a different understanding of the definition. Many common acronyms have multiple meanings.

For instance:

  • SME, which can be Subject Matter Expert or Small to Medium Enterprise
  • AP, which can be Access Point, Asia-Pacific or Accounts Payable
  • MVP, which can be Most Valuable Player or Minimum Viable Product

Deciding if people will understand an acronym can be a tough judgment call. On the other hand, when everyone understands what the acronym means, it can be a very efficient way of communication. Consequently, we need to check for understanding.

The cost of overuse

As communication specialists, we also need to aware of overuse, which seems to be a growing trend that needs to be addressed.

For example, I once had a client show me a document that detailed the skills, knowledge and experience required for a particular position. But “skills, knowledge and experience” had been abbreviated to SKE. While it may take fewer keystrokes, the communicator is putting all the onus and hard work on the reader to interpret the meaning.

Some companies believe that the best way to address this is to create a database listing all the different acronyms. Personally, I fail to see how this addresses the issue. In my mind, reducing the unnecessary use of acronyms is the best approach, as recently demonstrated by a client of mine.

When Kate moved to a new company and industry, she received a 10-page report. The last page was a glossary of all the acronyms in the report, which she had to keep referring to. In an attempt to change the culture and wean her new team off the unnecessary use of acronyms, she asked for the report to be rewritten without any acronyms. This eliminated the need for the last page. The report ended up being the same number of pages but much easier for the reader to understand.

Another problem with acronyms occurs when we start to use them with customers. A short time ago I received an email from my financial planner that contained the term BPS. Having a technology background, I immediately interpreted it as bits per second, which I knew was not correct. So, I asked via email what BPS meant. My adviser replied with “basis points.” Not only did this require two additional emails to clarify, it made me feel a bit foolish for not knowing—and I am the customer.

In 2014, Richard Branson wrote a LinkedIn article titled “Why You Should Do Away with Jargon.” His opening paragraph read:

Some people love speaking in jargon, using fancy words and turning everything into acronyms. Personally, I find this simply slows things down, confuses people and causes them to lose interest. It’s far better to use a simple term and commonplace words that everyone will understand, rather than showing off and annoying your audience.

In summary, if you are only using the term a few times over a written report, you do not need to reduce this to an acronym, as it makes it harder for the reader to understand. The same applies in verbal communication.

Remember that when you use acronyms you are putting all the onus and hard work on the reader to interpret what you are communicating. Put bluntly, using too many acronyms is just lazy and results in poor communication. As Branson said, it’s also annoying for your audience.

Overusing of acronyms leads to disconnection and miscommunication. Yet our role as communicators is to connect and avoid misunderstanding. We need to find a cure to our addiction.

Gabrielle Dolan
Gabrielle Dolan Gabrielle Dolan is a best-selling author and international speaker on real communication and business storytelling. She is also the founder of Jargon Free Fridays. Her latest book is Real Communication: How to be you and lead true.

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