Thursday, October 07, 2010

Acronyms: Just jargon that won't help you communicate

Acronyms are an inside game, shorthand for those who'll frequently repeat the words involved...and, if it's the type of acronym that spells out a special word, a bit of a rallying cry or inside joke for the team.

But all that sets up a speed bump between you and your external audience. The inside knowledge, special significance and shorthand understanding you packed into that acronym don't translate to the people you're trying to reach...and may make it harder, rather than easier, for them to understand and appreciate what you have to say.  That's the best-case scenario.

Then there's the confusion factor. I belong to one group--the National Association of Science Writers--that shares a lot of misdirected web traffic with the similar group for social workers. ACS can stand for the American societies for cancer, chemistry and surgery, as well as groups representing Alaska, computer science, children's services, and cold sores.  How does the acronym help those groups, outside their borders?

Perhaps that's why I cheered Natalie Angier's minor rant in the New York Times, STEM education has little to do with flowers. STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering and mathematics," the result of a battle to get these specific disciplines mentioned consistently when science is discussed.  She notes:
Go to any convention, Congressional hearing or science foundation bagel chat on the ever ominous theme of “Science in the Classroom, and why can’t our students be more like Singapore’s when they take international tests anyway?” and you’ll hear little about how to teach trigonometry or afford all those Popsicle sticks needed for the eighth-grade bridge-building competition, but you’ll be pelted by references to STEM.
Scientists, who already claim several special languages of their own, do seem prone to acronym-itis and even coming up with shorthand that's longer than what it's describing, but then, so do universities, government agencies and other large bureaucracies. Even the U.S. Congress has caught the fever, with what seems like every other bill getting a title that makes an acronym intended to underscore the issue. As a longtime observer of science communication, the STEM trend just adds to the jargon, in my view, without helping to recruit outsiders to its cause. It's pushing away, rather than pulling in, those who might be supporters.
Communicators, do you part: Coach your leaders to refer to your organization name full out, or say "the university," "the association" or "the company" in preference to an acronym when speaking. And if you can quietly discourage the clever acronym, do so. An uphill battle, I know, but try.

Learn how to be a dynamic speaker in my next two-day workshop, Good on Your Feet: A dynamic speaking skills workshop, November 3 and 4 in Washington, DC.

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1 comment:

TJ said...

Great advice. I always advice clients not to use any acronyms or initials unless it is IRS, CIA or SCUBA.