Acronyms and industry specific jargon are convenient shortcuts in communication between peers. That can be very useful, but it can also create barriers in communication – particularly so in writing.
In this blog, I provide a few easy best practices for using acronyms and jargon in writing and presentations.
First, four things I’ve learned over a career in communications for high-tech and industrial clients:
- Subject matter experts often believe that spelling out acronyms or using common terms rather than industry jargon is an insult to the audience
- Numerous acronyms have multiple possible meanings, even within the same industry
- Jargon is wrapped up with many assumptions about what people know or how they think about things – and those assumptions may alienate some audiences
- People often won’t ask for the meaning of a specialized term or acronym for fear of appearing ignorant or “not up to speed”
Acronyms and jargon also impact your ability to reach a wider audience.
Let’s say you’ve written a blog and posted it to LinkedIn; the title is, “5 Steps to Make Your CTE Roll-Out a Success”. Now, let’s say I see your post, have no idea what CTE is, and keep scrolling. You’ve just missed a networking opportunity that would have come at zero cost to you. That’s because I have a close friend who is a key decision-maker at the school board, and if I’d known that CTE was “Career and Technical Education”, I’d have forwarded the blog to them. Likewise, I would begin to associate you with the topic of career and technical education, leading me to make future business connections to you when opportunities arise.
In today’s online-content-rich business environment, you’re never writing just for your peers. The internet is a broadcast medium, and that should affect the choices you make in writing about specialized topics.
Best Practices for Acronyms and Jargon
It’s not difficult to use acronyms effectively. Audiences will appreciate your help to better understand the terms, and those who already know will nod their heads in recognition that you’re on the same page. Here’s the best-practice:
Use acronyms to increase brevity, but always spell them out the first time you use them in a blog, on a web page, or on a presentation. This includes in titles, too: 5 Steps to Make Your Career & Technical Education (CTE) Roll-Out a Success. This practice also has benefits for search-engine optimization.
Jargon is trickier because we often don’t realize that we’re using it. We become so accustomed to our own insider language that it’s like breathing. Jargon is language that loses meaning to anyone outside of your field, so try this:
Imagine reading your article or script to an intelligent friend who is not in your field. At what points will they ask for clarification? Find more universal or common ways to state the same ideas. This can also set your writing apart from other industry “noise”.
Providing an appendix of terms and definitions may be appropriate in longer documents or proposals – but generally not for blogs and thought-leadership articles.
Presentations and speeches are a bit different because the written script may never be read by anyone else. That means your audience won’t be able to back-track to remind themselves of what an acronym stood for or what a fancy word meant. Try this:
Use acronyms in your talk, but spell them out on your slides.
Provide an alphabetical handout of useful terms (including both acronyms and short-hand jargon) that you’ll be using – and what they mean. For example, I might explain that, when I use the word “customer”, I am referring to anyone whom a brand serves, which may include members, patients, students, consumers, and clients.