Imagine you are the world’s most effective writer. Every time you jot down a sentence, every single English-speaker understands everything you’re trying to say without confusion. You’re 100% understandable 100% of the time by 100% of English-speakers. You’re a master of the written word.
That feels a bit far-fetched, right?
We rarely achieve that level of clarity in our written communication with each other, especially given the quick pace of everyday work. My guess is that most of us are 70–80% clear at any given time in emails or Slack conversations, but we’re doing the best we can given the circumstances.
But there’s a glaring problem in the business world: acronyms. Every time you use an acronym, you lower your communication success rate. When you use acronyms, you are literally replacing words or phrases with secret messages only decipherable by a portion of people. In other words, using acronyms always reduces the number of people who can confidently understand what you have written or spoken.
In the extremely unlikely event that I ever become an executive of a company, I would ban or strongly discourage the use of acronyms at work. Here’s why:
- Acronyms waste time because there are typically more readers than writers. If one person introduces an acronym into their writing to save a few seconds, they affect the reading experience for their many readers. In business, communication is rarely 1-on-1 — readers tend to outnumber writers. When one writer takes a shortcut, many readers bear the burden. You save time for yourself at the expense of others.
- Acronyms spawn cliques and fiefdoms because small teams develop their own shorthand that is hard for outsiders to decipher. Companies work hard to “break down silos” between divisions or “get everyone on the same page,” but they often ignore the destructive role that language played to build silos in the first place. Using acronyms directly leads to exclusion and alienation of people who are out of the linguistic loop.
- Acronyms increase the need for training, especially among new employees. Acronyms are a seed that eventually sprouts and bears fruit: unnecessary help documentation, frustrated support requests, and costly training programs.
If you are an executive of a company whose employees are frequently mis-communicating, creating needless cliques, and increasing the need for training, what would you do about it? It would be a crisis! Yet most managers in most companies tolerate or encourage the use of acronyms. Often, leaders are the worst offenders.
When I worked for a design consultancy, I visited a bustling trading floor at Merrill Lynch in London to observe how traders use their software. These people were trading hundreds of thousands of dollars as casually as you or I would send an email or drink a sip of coffee.
I noticed one of the main tabs in the interface had an acronym in it.
What does “GMG Clients” mean?
God Made Geese? How the fuck should I know?
This person was a highly-paid employee of one of the largest financial institutions in the world, and he had been using this trading interface for years. He had developed a blind spot for the unfamiliar acronym, which he ignored in the interest of doing his job. Still, the bank was equipping these high-stakes traders with interfaces that literally had gibberish written on them. It’s reckless for no reason.
We all behave like this trader — we accept, ignore, or decode acronyms as a normal part of getting our work done. It doesn’t need to be this way. We do not need to accept acronyms as business-as-usual.
Are acronyms ever acceptable? Maybe. If an acronym represents a concept so widely understood that most adults would understand its meaning, then it might be acceptable. For example, in an audience of people from the United States, it is probably okay to say, “The former president’s home was raided by the FBI for refusing to return highly-sensitive classified documents.” In that case, saying Federal Bureau of Investigation might actually lead to more confusion than saying FBI because the acronym is far more common in regular speech. Similarly, RSVP is more widely understood than répondez s’il vous plaît.
In most cases, the underlying words are far clearer than acronym.
Acronyms are poison for your organization. At first, it’s a low-dose drip of poison, but eventually it seeps into an organization and compromises its overall health. To keep your organization healthy, please stop using them.