Why acronyms are effective communication worst enemy

Over the past few years, I became increasingly annoyed over the use of acronyms in my organisation. I am far from the only person out there which hates acronyms, and Elon Musk’s 2010 email regarding acronyms in SpaceX resonates very strongly with me.

“Excessive use of made-up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important.”

My own experience matches exactly the feelings expressed in this email. Acronyms are a poor way of communicating, are counterproductive and do far more harm than good. Here is why.

Acronyms are not inclusive

This is a huge issue, especially in diverse organisations whose churn is high, with new members and leaders coming in all the time. I lost count of the number of times when acronyms mentioned during training sessions without any explanation. The presenter just assumes that the acronym’s meaning is known because we all belong to the same organisation. Of course, nobody dares to question what the acronyms mean for fear of embarrassment or appearing ignorant in front of senior trainers. This can result in essential concepts not being explored as much as they could be and in people not understanding some basics. Congratulations, by using acronyms you may be putting off people who need training the most!

Another barrier created by acronyms, is newer people unable to join conversations with more established members or leaders. Someone listening to an acronym laden conversation could be forgiven for wondering where they landed, or even worse, for wondering if they had joined some kind of cult. Something else that I remarked over the years, is that tolerating acronyms leads to a propensity to create more acronyms. This even leads to different parts of an organisation using different acronyms to describe the same concept. The nuclear industry in which I previously worked is especially guilty of this, and so is Toastmasters.

Can anybody tell me what this acronym means, I don’t know …

Acronyms make communication more difficult

While acronyms can in theory save time and make it easier to pass on information, the reality often differs from theory by a large margin. The best example is the way we use the acronym TLI in my organisation. We may for example say – “come to the TLI next Saturday, it will be an interesting event!” Notice how this sentence does not explain what a TLI is, what may happen and why people should consider attending. TLI means Toastmasters Leadership Institute. Here, not using the acronym makes it easier to understand what the event is about and additionally provides a reason why people should attend. Namely, that this is an institute about leadership and they will be learning about how to become a better leader.

It is fascinating to read that scientific literature does support the point that acronyms hamper communication. Nevertheless, and against all common sense; acronym use is growing worldwide spurred on by the growth of new fields and disciplines. Not knowing what an acronym means creates frustrations, misunderstandings and extra time spent researching the acronyms’ possible meanings. Using them in written documents or slides may help to a degree as long as they are explained first. But using them when delivering a speech, is a guaranteed way to lose the attention and focus of parts of your audience.

The alphabet soup is for cooking and not for communicating!

What can you do about this?

Not using acronyms and making a habit of not doing so is a great start. The next time you use an acronym, ask yourself if you need to use it and if others would understand its meaning. Keeping things simple and jargon-free is better than attempting to save time by using an acronym that nobody understands. Not making up new acronyms in the first place is another simple way of not feeding the alphabet soup. Restricting acronyms to written documents only (and even there, use them sparingly), is another simple action that can avoid them creeping out in conversations.

Effective leadership and effective communication go hand in hand. My task to leaders seeking to break down barriers inside their organisations. Is to proactively challenge acronym use and to the one that asks the question that more junior people may be too afraid to ask.

“Excuse me but what does DCP/TLI/DRP mean? I don’t understand this term!”

Of course, commonly known acronyms like USA, SMART goals or industry-specific ones like GUI. Do have a place in communication, but is often the case less is more, so leave the alphabet soup to the kitchen and remember to Keep It Simple Stupid.

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