Acronyms seriously suck

Jane Sheffield
Lead Trainer & Owner
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Be wary of acronyms—they can cause confusion. 

In the early 2000s, I lived in London as an Account Director in corporate branding. In the branding world we loved a good acronym. I mean, who doesn’t, right? One of my go-to acronyms was SME, representing Small and Medium Enterprise. I used it, my clients used it, everyone used it! It made perfect sense – until I moved to Wellington.

Fast forward to 2016, I’m a newly trained Speaker Coach, sleep-deprived mum of three, helping a Manager Director with a client pitch. He keeps repeating, “We need the SME in the room for this decision.” What?! Why do we need a small and medium enterprise in the room? Why does he keeping banging on about SMES??!!!.  But I didn’t speak up. Instead, I nodded, smiled, and jotted down gibberish in my notebook.

That night, I shared my confusion to my husband.
“Oh yeah’ he laughed “SME also means Subject Matter Expert,”

WHAT??? You can’t just switch acronym meanings like that!

But, hey, we do it all the time. We create shorthand within our teams, industries, and companies—a language of our own. And let’s not even start on the PHD in acronym use us parents need to decipher our kid’s text messages!  Suddenly ATM*, POS** and CTN*** are not what you thought they were. (See below for definitions). 

In 2010, Elon Musk sent an email titled ‘Acronyms Seriously Suck,’ to all SpaceX employees, Musk stated that “excessive use of made-up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication.”   And he had a point. It’s all fine and dandy when we’re talking to our peers, but when we use acronyms that our audience don’t understand, it gets in the way of our message. 

So next time you’re presenting, get a second opinion on any acronyms you use. Because what you think is a time saver, could actually be a barrier to the effectiveness of your message.

Stop presenting. Start talking. Jane 

* At the moment
** Parents over shoulder
*** Can’t talk now

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