“Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn’t we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? ‘Cause of the leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we’d all be put out in K.P.”
In ‘Good Morning Vietnam‘, Robin Williams’ character, Adrian Cronauer, made the troops laugh by highlighting everything he saw as ridiculous in and around the military. Unsurprisingly, the heavy use of the acronym made a pretty easy target.
In ‘A Suitable Boy‘, Vikram Seth took aim at the acronym in a gentler, but equally effective way:
‘I work with CLFC and I’m in Brahmpur for a few days on work’.
Haresh assumed that the abbreviations he often used were entirely familiar to everyone else.
‘CLFC?’ asked Pran.
‘Cawnpore Leather & Footwear Company’.
‘Oh, so you work in the shoe trade’ said Pran.
In both examples, the joke is on the person delivering the acronym. It suggests they are institutionalised. Wrapped up in their own world. Talking in a language that will only mean something to those living inside the same bubble.
Yet in our professional lives, we tend to forget all this. Speeches, conversations, pitches and phone calls are littered with acronyms that are, at best, a way of saving a second or two, and at worst, baffling.
I have a number of clients in the transport industry. Understandably, when engineers and experts speak to each other, they use acronyms as a kind of shorthand, to get to the point quicker. Unfortunately, they often continue to do so when they are reporting to the Board, or speaking to customers. At which point, a confident listener asks them to explain what they mean. But all too often, we nod out of politeness, and walk away feeling confused.
On one occasion, I was asked by a client to observe a finance committee meeting where heads of department would have 30 minute slots to put their case for funding to the board. In every case bar one, I struggled to understand the key benefit to the end-user as they attempted to make their cases using reams of technical detail, processes and acronyms. After a while I started to note down all the phrases and acronyms that were beyond me. In a review meeting with the Finance Director, I ran ten of them by her. She only understood four of the ten.
Great communication (be it via the spoken or written word) has to be relevant. That means addressing the audience or reader in ways that resonate. We often talk about ‘translating’ technical information into something clear and impactful. Using acronyms does the opposite. It suggests that you are not putting your audience first.
Rory Stewart explains what this means in a political context in this excellent interview with Nick Robinson:
I passionately believe that it is our duty, as speakers and writers, to communicate in a way that is clear, straightforward and appropriate.
The acronym has a home – amongst groups of people who all understand what it stands for. Watching ‘Line of Duty’, one can only hope that every police officer understands what POLSA, OCG, TADA and SOCA mean. But were they used in a conversation with a member of the public, the vast majority of us would feel confused, excluded and, possibly, a little embarrassed. Which isn’t a great recipe for getting an important message across.