There’s a problem with communication in your industry - whatever your industry is - because every single one is riddled with these: acronyms and abbreviations.
Acronyms and abbreviations are commonplace - and there’s even a good chance they’ve seeped into your website, newsletters and customer facing external communications.
And the chances are they’re doing more harm than good.
One thing you can do to improve communications within your business today is to dump acronyms and abbreviations and here are the reasons why.
Presumably we all started shortening things to make our lives quicker and more efficient, but acronyms and abbreviations often have the opposite effect.
Acronyms and abbreviations (let’s inject some irony here and start calling them A&As), may save the writer a couple of seconds but often they cost the reader time.
A&As often cause us to stumble for a moment as we drag up their meaning from our memory banks. If someone hits an abbreviation they’re not familiar with, they face a problem.
They will perhaps Google the abbreviation, endure the potential embarrassment of asking someone what it means or, more likely, they’ll continue and not know exactly what was meant. In some cases, the penny will drop later. In others they’ll remain confused or even get the wrong message entirely.
Let’s say, for instance, that we’ve agreed that after we post this article on our website we’ll do some quick M&E around it. Have I lost anyone?
Errr...Google: ‘M&E.’ The first and second results for ‘M&E’ both relate to: ‘mechanical and electrical’. It seems unlikely that was my intended meaning.
At position 3 in Google for ‘M&E’ is: ‘Morris and Essex Railroad’. Nope, not that.
Ah ha! Number 4 on Google: ‘Monitoring and Evaluation.’
You may have known immediately that ‘M&E’ in this instance meant ‘monitoring and evaluation.’ Congratulations.
But I’ll bet there’s someone that didn’t and why would we want to exclude them from the conversation?
In some cases, making communications impenetrable with abbreviations will mean that people who could have offered something really valuable to the conversation are left baffled or entirely switched off. Often it is those people who you want to engage in the conversation most.
Very often the best ideas and solutions arise when you collaborate with people who have different knowledge, different backgrounds and different areas of expertise.
That may mean not everyone speaks exactly the same language (in terms of abbreviations and acronyms at the very least), but if we can all make ourselves understood, we’ll get valuable input from all corners.
Great minds do not always think alike, which is why diverse teams, with different insight, who attack things from different points of view, come up with great, rounded, fully interrogated solutions. Just ask the great minds who established the group of code breakers that cracked the Enigma code - a major allied breakthrough in the Second World War. It may have seemed logical to only recruit top mathematicians to do the codebreaking, but they also chose a crossword wizard, legal philosopher and literary texts academic.
This isn't just a problem in SEO, digital or marketing either. In the medical profession, for example, there is a growing body of advocacy for eliminating the use of acronyms, arguing that they stifle understanding and don’t actually make the communication any shorter or more efficient.
The Enigma code crackers probably wouldn’t have struggled too much with any acronym and abbreviation we threw at them. But even they would have to pause to consider the meaning of abbreviations they were not used to. They would divert their minds to solving that puzzle rather than being fully devoted to the actual issue at hand.
If we’re in a meeting and someone mentions ‘conversion rate optimisation’, instead of merely ‘CRO’, a communication barrier has been removed.
By spelling out what we’re actually talking about, we’ve saved people the trouble of having to think too hard about that bit and we’ve included everyone in the conversation. We now have more engaged minds, even among the non-experts in that field.
Of course, not everyone will fully understand that by ‘conversion rate optimisation’ we mean taking actions to improve the likelihood of web visitors doing what we’d like them to do, such as making a purchase, but then we get into jargon and, well, that’s a whole other blog post (our sister agency Stickyeyes touches on jargon in ‘five ways to perfect your copywriting’).
In marketing and digital agency life, every day we mix up teams with hugely differing knowledge and specialism to discuss things and to come up with solutions.
It’s one of the great strengths of agencies that we’re able to bring the broad experience of a large team together to solve client challenges.
Daily we have brainstorm, account update and client meetings where our SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and strategy specialists get together with our ex journalist content teams, our account managers, our design, distribution and paid media experts and perhaps a customer too. And it’s vital that we do everything possible to include everyone in the whole discussion.
Not everyone can know every piece of profession-specific terminology, but everyone is sure to have something useful to add.
After all, we may be having a WIP meeting, where there’s a deep discussion about Q2 CTR and the need for a PO, which must be signed off by the CEO*. You get my point?
It may be that most of the people in the meeting will know what some, or even most, of the abbreviations mean. There will be some who know what it all means, but there’s a good chance everyone is struggling to keep up. When our written or spoken language is peppered with acronyms and abbreviations it makes life unnecessarily difficult.
*Translation: A work in progress (WIP) meeting, where there’s a deep discussion about quarter two (Q2) click through rates (CTR) and the need for a purchase order (PO), which must be signed off by the chief executive officer (CEO).
Now, nothing is ever clear cut in life is it? So, here’s the disclaimer. While the entire point of this post is to make a case for the obliteration of acronyms and abbreviations, even here, we ought to acknowledge that they can have their place.
If you’re using one specific term repeatedly in the same piece of communication it may become odd not to shorten it. That’s where A&As have their place (If you’re skim reading this and have no idea what an A&A is, it’s our little joke. It stands for Acronyms and Abbreviations).
And, actually, there’s a serious point here. Unless you are communicating with someone you are certain understands the meaning you intend by an acronym or abbreviation, spell the term out in full on the first mention and put the abbreviation in brackets afterwards.
So, we’d say acronyms and abbreviations (A&A) for our first mention and, if we really must shorten it later, A&As afterward. This is a standard part of most content style guides.
In this way, whoever you are communicating with will know what you mean the next time you use the abbreviation. You’ve extended a great courtesy to them by not assuming they should know what you mean. You’ve not made them feel silly or frustrated.
Once you are batting back and forth communications between the two of you, by all means develop a shorthand. But remember that in the same way that ‘in jokes’ exclude people outside of the clique, if your communications begin extending to more people, you’ll need to get them up-to-speed.
If you’re struggling with acronyms or abbreviations don’t be afraid to ask what they mean.
As with all questions that feel ‘silly’, the chances are that someone else is also wondering the answer.
There’s no shame in not knowing an acronym or abbreviation. It’s the responsibility of the person delivering a message to ensure they can be understood.
For further tips on excellent and accessible content creation see our Content eBook.
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