Acronyms can be fun and tempting to use, but they have a dark side.
They can be addictive for writers and bewildering for readers.
Okay, I admit I sometimes use acronyms and initialisms. (And, I confess, I sometimes erroneously talk about them as if they were a single concept.) There are even times when I encourage my students to use them. (Here's an example I posted on this site last spring.) However, I only use them in moderation, and I caution my students against confusing people by using too many in a single message.
Gabrielle Dolan, a best-selling author about storytelling in business, said similar things in an article in IABC's monthly publication Catalyst. It's worth reading in its entirety, so I'll only share a few highlights to whet your appetite.
She begins with an assumption, followed by a quick denial: "One of the main reasons we create acronyms is to make communication easier and more efficient... In the vast majority of cases, I would suggest that they are not."
The ironic truth, according to Dolan, is that acronyms were "designed to confuse." They began coming into prominence in the English language during the Second World War. "The idea was that when the enemy intercepted a message containing lots of acronyms, it would be difficult to understand." And, therein lies the irony of using acronyms in public relations writing today. As public relations practitioners, we constantly strive to make our messages clear and easy to understand, but we have unwittingly "adopted a style of communication that was invented to make it harder to understand the meaning."
When, and if, you're sure your audience will actually understand the meaning you're trying to convey with an acronym, use it. "It can be a very efficient way of communication," Dolan said. But, don't assume that is always the case. Your audience may not have any idea what the acronym you're using represents. Worse yet, they may have a totally different, but equally valid, understanding of what those initials mean.
"Many common acronyms have multiple meanings." For example, "AP," equally well means Associated Press, Asia-Pacific, Accounts Payable, advanced placement, automated production, access point, and dozens of other things. And, neither your name nor title, nor the context of your message will necessarily indicate which meaning is the correct one.
"When you use acronyms you are putting all the onus and hard work on the reader to interpret what you are communicating," Dolan concluded. "(It) is just lazy and results in poor communication... it's also annoying for your audience."
So, the next time you're tempted to use an acronym, stop and ask yourself: Is it really the best way to get my point across?