It doesn't matter if you're OOO – It's still BAU until COB. (Yes, welcome to acronym hell!)
— June 3rd, 2019
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 without all the acronyms:
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 and National Australia Bank as NAB.
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Other acronyms like PIN (personal identification number) were extremely new technical terms about 30 years ago, but today they are part of our everyday language. So, we can assume most of us understand. Another example is the word scuba which originated from Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Hence, scuba and ATM have made communicating about the topics they relate to more efficient.
Unfortunately, acronyms become very inefficient when people don’t understand what they mean or have a different understanding. For example, SME. Some will think of Subject Matter Expert, while others will interpret that as Small to Medium Enterprise.
Deciding if people will understand the acronym is a judgment call that unfortunately, we often get wrong. Adding to the problem of potential misunderstanding, we are also seeing an increase in new and unnecessary acronym use. It seems we are addicted to acronyms.
The increase in unnecessary acronyms in business is driven mainly by companies with guidelines such as “documents can only be two pages long” or “presentations four slides in length”. The result? People use a smaller, less legible font, or include unnecessary acronyms to save on space.
Recently a client of mine moved to a new company and was reading a 10-page report. The last page contained a list of all the acronyms in the report that she had to keep referring to. In an attempt to change the culture and wean her new team of the unnecessary use of acronyms, she asked for the report to be rewritten without any acronyms. Therefore, eliminating the need for the glossary. The report ended up being the same 10 pages but much easier for the reader to understand.
As well as reducing the effectiveness of communication, acronyms used during interactions with customers can also lead to disengagement. While at lunch with a friend, I asked the waiter what white wine they had by the glass. She replied with, ‘We have an SB or SBS’. I sort of thought I knew what she meant but wasn’t totally sure so I asked for clarification.
As suspected, it was Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc Semillon. If acronyms are used for efficiency, surely it would be timelier and more effective to avoid reducing the wine types to acronyms, especially if it will most likely require an explanation from the waitress.
In summary, if you are only using the term a few times over the whole report or conversation, you do not need to reduce this to an acronym. It makes it harder for the person you are communicating with to understand.
Remember that when you use acronyms you are putting all the onus and hard work on the reader or listener to interpret what you are communicating. Put bluntly, using too many acronyms is just lazy and results in poor communication.
Acronyms can be very efficient if everyone understands what they mean, however, always consider if this is the case. Always take into account that unnecessary use of acronyms will lead to your communication becoming less efficient and effective.