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Acronyms: Shorthand That May Be a Bad Shortcut

by Carol Rozwell  |  February 20, 2013  |  Submit a Comment

One of the reasons I’m so fussy about some language usage is that we rely on words to convey meaning. One of the most difficult aspects of communication among humans is the fact that what I say may not be what you hear. Obviously this is not an audio problem. It’s one of interpretation. Words have different meanings depending on context. Take for example, the word ‘wind.’ Is it a noun or a verb? We’re not even sure how to pronounce it unless we know the sentence in which its used. It could mean a breeze or creating potential energy in a clock.

When we are trying to convey concepts – especially new ones – we must be careful which words we choose. Each of us interprets words according to our orientation and experience. Take the word ‘network.’ As a student of social network analysis, I immediately think of social network maps. They depict associations of people united by a common interest. However, someone with a background in infrastructure is more likely to envision circuitry, wires and cables.

The difficulty of communicating across disciplines is one of the reasons I dislike acronyms. So many of them can be mistaken for something else. This confuses meaning.

More importantly, the acronym obscures purpose and potential value. Think about a common situation in the technology industry. We create a program designed to bring about change. We give it a cool name intended to be a rallying point for participants. Then we make it into an acronym and everyone forgets what it stands for and why we are doing it.

Yes, acronyms are a nifty shorthand for busy people. I admit that. I’ve even used WIIFM in previous blogs. But if you are trying to sell people on a concept and engage them in bringing a good idea into reality, then take a tip from clever marketers – use words that enlist, encourage and excite.

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Carol Rozwell
VP Distinguished Analyst
11 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Carol Rozwell is a vice president and distinguished analyst on Gartner's Digital Workplace team. Read Full Bio

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