How often have you been presented with unfamiliar acronyms without being told what they stand for? Acronyms, can streamline communications when used effectively, but acronyms create confusion, loss of productivity, and frustration when misused. Communications effectiveness and productivity can be improved by applying and promoting best practices when using acronyms. Before getting to the 5 best practices, it's helpful to understand some of the problems created when acronyms are misunderstood:
a) Different people may have different meanings for the same acronym which leads to confusion and mistakes. The medical profession has identified misunderstood acronyms as a serious source of medical errors.
b) People may assume they know the acronym and sometimes guess what it means, but if their guess is wrong, they proceed, thinking they understand the acronym, when their understanding is incorrect or incomplete.
c) By saving a few seconds, not defining an acronym, you risk losing the meaning of your message and the attention of your audience as they wonder what the acronym means.
d) The meaning of acronyms can be diluted over time. As some acronyms become ingrained within organizations, many people who use them, don’t know their correct meaning, and misuse them compounding the loss of communication effectiveness.
e) Acronyms create barriers to effective cross-cultural communication.
f) It is difficult, if not impossible, to build an effective culture based on cooperation and trust in the absence of clear understanding.
Five best practices for communication using Acronyms:
1. The best practice when employing acronyms in speech or writing is to define the acronym when it is introduced, then to use the acronym for subsequent instances. If you are not going to repeat the acronym, then consider if you really want to use it in the first place.
2. The key to applying acronyms effectively is to identify when their use is appropriate. Acronyms expedite communication within teams who work closely together, and are familiar with their meaning. When you are certain that you are speaking to someone who knows the acronym, by all means, use it to save time. However when writing, it’s better to define your acronyms. You may be writing to a team member, but your message may be forwarded to others who are unfamiliar with your terminology.
3. If you are uncertain if some members of your audience are familiar with your terminology, it’s better to err on the conservative side and explain acronyms. Even when the audience is from the same organization, they may not understand the acronyms and terminology.
4. Develop a culture that encourages people to ask what acronyms mean when they are not familiar.
5. Maintain a central reference for company and industry specific acronyms.
Let me know if you have recommendations for improving clarity and understanding when using acronyms.