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 efficient and easier. For example, most people would refer to an automatic teller machine as an ATM and National Australia Bank as nab.
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, which pretty much most of us understand. Scuba is another example. An acronym meaning self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, that eventually made it into the dictionary.
On top of the problem of potential misunderstanding, we are seeing an increase in acronyms and in most cases they are unnecessary. It seems we are addicted to acronyms.
Examples like scuba and ATM have actually made communicating about the topics they relate to more efficient. However, acronyms become very inefficient when people don’t understand what they mean or have a different understanding. For example, SME. Some will think Subject Matter Expert, while others will interpret that as Small to Medium Enterprise.
On top of the problem of potential misunderstanding, we are seeing an increase in acronyms and in most cases they are unnecessary. It seems we are addicted to acronyms. While at lunch with a friend once 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 more efficient and effective for her to avoid reducing the wine types to acronyms if she will most likely be stopped for an explanation.
I see an increase in unnecessary acronyms, 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.
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. It may take fewer key strokes but, the communicator is putting all the onus and hard work on the reader to interpret.
Another client 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 and this time not include any acronyms and therefore eliminated the need for the last page. The report ended up being the same 10 pages but this time easier for the reader to understand. More efficient and more effective.
If you are only using the term a few times over the whole report, you do not need to reduce this to an acronym. It makes it harder for the person you are communicating with to understand. The same applies for verbal communication as well as written.
Acronyms can be very efficient if everyone understands what they mean. However, always consider if this is the case otherwise unnecessary acronyms will lead to your communication becoming less efficient and effective.