Last week, we were sent a presentation from a client to update us on his sales performance. We started going through the charts, but by page 4 we had to give up. The graphs were all very easy to understand. The titles though were not. By chart 4, helpfully titled 'P4W Drinkers ROI other LAD', we had no idea what was being shown.
Grrrr... So this month's column is devoted to EUA (excessive use of acronyms) in business communication. Using abbreviations in business is nothing new. But it does feel to us like it is getting out of hand. A simple query round the office for corroborating evidence unleashed a torrent of examples and despairing pleas for EUA to be wrestled back under control. Among prized examples like SLF ('Self Loading Freight', which is what one train operator calls its passengers), we came across BM (used intriguingly by the same company for both Brand Manager and Bowel Movement) and even one client who had issued a helpful glossary of abbreviations to its agencies which ran to 13 pages and over 200 examples.
Why is this phenomenon growing so fast? We suspect that it's partly to do with standardisation. As companies have grown bigger and more international, and business methods have become increasingly professionalised, business people around the globe are increasingly using the same practices and techniques. The same terminology becomes used more frequently and across the organisation - a fertile breeding ground for common abbreviations. Technology has probably played a role too. Anyone who has tried to express themselves within the confines of a PowerPoint headline, a text (OMG!) or a tweet will know how seductive abbreviations can be.
But what's wrong with convenient shorthand you might ask? We are all busy - it is impractical to say and write longhand versions of all the words we regularly use in our day-to-day business life. Acronyms oil the wheels and speed everything up. It could even be argued that a shared vocabulary of abbreviations unintelligible to those outside an organisation can be a force for good - creating a stronger sense of community and shared culture.
All this may be true, but there are dangers when it goes too far. As in our example of the presentation from the client, abbreviations that help speed up communication internally are often unintelligible when they move into the real world. Worse, they can be a great smokescreen for the lazy or less competent to hide behind. Sprinkling your PowerPoint presentation liberally with incomprehensible acronyms is a great way to make your work look complex and scientific, even when it's vacuous. And if other people can't understand what you are writing or saying, then maybe you feel a little bit cleverer too.
Letter abbreviations also have a dangerous distancing effect. We have made this point before regarding the word 'consumer': when you use it, you immediately lose the sense of real people.
But perhaps our biggest concern about EUA is that there is a fine line between making something shorter so it is quicker to say and write, and making it shorter so that it requires less thought. When abbreviations take on a life of their own, people often stop thinking about the theories and assumptions that lie behind them.
It has been mooted, for example, that the innocent-looking acronym may even have played a part in the US sub-prime crisis. Maybe it is no coincidence that some of the culprits which lay at the heart of it were distinguished by their three letters - CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations) and CDS (Credit Default Swaps) - just writing them longhand with the words 'default' and 'debt' exposed somehow makes them look a lot less anodyne.
So, keep using your acronyms, but from the glossary provided by our client, make sure your use of them is BIC (Best In Class) and WBN (Well Below Normal).
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.