For sure, acronyms are an easy, comfortable way for you to talk to other people “in the know.” And when you’re an insider, you may think that you can take shortcuts because it’s easier than using a lengthy project or product name. But you shouldn’t. Here’s one of the best and most clearly stated arguments as to why using acronyms is a bad idea.
In December of 2015 I came across a Tweet from @ValaAfshar, Chief Digital Evangelist for Salesforce. In it, he cited an e-mail that Elon Musk wrote to his employees on the subject of acronyms. At the end of a lengthy tirade against acronyms, Musk wrote, “The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication.” I had started but never finished a blog article on acronyms and dug out my old draft for re-writing. With Elon Musk on my side, I wanted to revisit the important, yet often overlooked topic.
In most cases, using acronyms hurts communication. They create unnecessary barriers that hinder knowledge transfer within organizations. It’s bad enough when acronyms complicate communication within a company. But they are even worse for communication between companies and their customers.
From a communications standpoint, here are three main problems that arise when you use acronyms:
- You make it harder to share knowledge;
- You narrow your audience;
- You increase the chances that mistakes happen.
It’s Greek to Me
According to Wikipedia, the idiom “It’s Greek to me” may be attributable to monks in the Middle Ages, when knowledge of Ancient Greek was on the decline. These scribes couldn’t read original texts and knowledge was simply -- and unfortunately –lost.
Knowledge transfer is a key concern for businesses, especially in highly-specialized industries. When employees use acronyms, they make it harder for new hires or transfers. Extensive use of acronyms in company materials also slows down the learning curve for them, which results in reduced productivity.
When people use acronyms internally they make it harder for cross-functional teams to work together. If the Finance Team uses one set of acronyms, developers use another set and sales uses a third set of acronyms, it is like each team speaks a foreign language. If they don’t understand each other’s acronyms, teamwork is impaired.
Are you Sheldon?
In the hit TV series, The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon, Leonard and friends speak in a sort of code. Are you like Sheldon? It makes for comical watching when neighbor Penny doesn’t understand a physics reference. But when it happens either inside the workplace, or worse, between you and your customers, it’s not so funny.
Lost in Translation
If you’ve ever seen the movie starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, you might remember the director giving lengthy instructions to Bill for the filming of the whisky commercial. His directions were horribly mistranslated and/or partially mistranslated by the interpreter. Bill Murray is left to guess what the director wants from him. And he’s a skilled actor.
You cannot expect your colleagues or customers to play the same guessing game when it comes to decoding your acronyms. Let’s consider the situation when developers and sales staff use different acronyms. Sales people and developers may misunderstand specifications documents for a new piece of software and they may make errors. Or, they may misunderstand what the sales team means and go down the wrong path that may require a later revision. Both add time to the development cycle and waste money.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
Have you ever done a Google search for your favorite acronym? If you haven’t, I suggest that you perform a search on your preferred acronym the next time you’re tempted to use one. Abbreviations.com, a popular resource of abbreviations and acronyms boasts a database of 330,000 and growing.
Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you didn’t know what your acronym meant, how long would it take you to find the right meaning? I
In the words of Elon Musk, ask yourself whether you’re helping or hurting communication before you use your next acronym.
 Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Ecco: 2015.
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