Thursday, March 20, 2014

Down with acronyms (DWA): Don't get caught making these mistakes

When I chaired the European Speechwriters Network conference in Brussels in September 2013, our lead speaker was Luuk van Middelar, Dutch historian and speechwriter to the president of the European Council. He set himself a personal goal when writing his book on the creation of the European Union, The Passage to Europe: Not using any acronyms in a close-to-400-page book about a multinational bureaucracy. The next day, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's senior planning officer and speechwriter Jonathan Parish shared a different reality. He told us that NATO--which covers 28 nations and 25 languages--has a dictionary of acronyms that runs to 300 such abbreviations.

Acronyms are useful shorthand within organizations. Once you start trotting them out in public, however, acronyms may act more as barriers than aids to your message. (These funny scientific acronyms, all of which amuse the insider, don't shed much light for the outsider.) I see too many organizations and companies starting the branding process with acronyms, rather than letting them follow a thoughtful communications planning process. Here are some considerations to make sure you don't get caught with an unwieldy abbreviation:
  • Acronyms that make cute names: Here in Washington, DC, our venerable Congress has taken to naming nearly every piece of legislation with long acronyms that make cute titles, a practice I abhor. Fortunately, the New York Times is with me on this. Few citizens realize that what we call the "Patriot Act" is really the "USA PATRIOT Act," short for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. So why use it? The Times notes that this phenomenon occurred almost not at all before 1988, and that it might be worth changing, as bill titles seem to have an impact in U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Talk about getting caught...
  • Almost-acronyms: I'm a big fan of the marketing wisdom in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, but the central tenets--simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, stories--almost spell "success." This requires one to spend more time explaining that it doesn't spell success than to discuss the central tenets. It's not solved by the typography (see below). 
  • The sound of abbreviation: If you wind up with an acronym that *must* have a particular syllable emphasized, that's an abbreviation that's too complicated. After all, you won't be around to correct everyone who attempts to pronounce it, right? I've seen clients get stuck with acronyms that sound odd when spoken aloud, and changing the syllabic emphasis doesn't really fix that. If you're a global organization, that acronym likely won't cross language borders--so is it worth it? Don't forget to consider how people actually say your acronym out loud. Having worked at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I can tell you we got plenty of snail mail addressed to "Triple A S" because that's how people actually say the acronym.
  • All the kids are using it: If you think your acronym is going to help your complexly-named organization "stand out"--an argument I've heard many times--think again. Or rather, Google again. I've also heard executives complain bitterly about other companies and groups using "their" acronyms, perhaps forgetting that the English alphabet has but 26 letters in it. There are only so many combinations to go around. Try this exercise: Live completely without an acronym for the organization, initiative or product in question for a month. Then think harder about whether you really need it.
  • We can make it distinctive with a type treatment: I love typography and did a special study in it in journalism school. But let me assure you that no amount of mixing capital and lowercase letters or, heaven forfend, different fonts will somehow overcome an acronym that's in wide use or not very compelling.
  • We need one because our real name is too long: Really? There are plenty of alternatively understandable shorthand methods to refer to your organization. "The company," "the university," "the society," or even "we" will do just fine. If you're naming a new organization, consider the name length when you're starting out, rather than putting all your hopes on the acronym.

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