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Your acronyms are excluding people

Scrabble letters spelling "Acronym" and the headline, "Your acronyms are excluding people"

Acronyms are abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word. Sometimes they can be useful. Most of the time, they should be ditched.

Do you want to block understanding, slow your readers down, and make them feel like they are not in the “in” crowd? Have fun with your excessive acronyms!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use acronyms in ways that include people instead of alienating them.

When are acronyms helpful?

Put your readers first.

Only use acronyms when they make it easier for your readers.

photo of a woman engineer looking at equipment

Before I started working in the environmental consulting industry, I never paid much attention to acronyms. In my first job as a technical editor at CH2M HILL (a company name acronym!), I kept a running list of all the acronyms in my documents.

My list would fill up with long acronyms like:

  • Dense nonaqueous phase liquids (DNAPL)

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response and Recovery Act (CERCLA)

  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)

Acronyms can be useful in complex writing and long documents so you don’t have to vomit all those technical words every single time.

Do: The first time you use an acronym, put it in a parenthesis after the phrase. Keep track of where you you first identified it.

Don’t: If you use the phrase only once in your document, avoid using an acronym. (This defeats the point.)

When are acronyms exclusive?

Most of the time, acronyms alienate your readers:

  • Your clients can view unnecessary acronyms as insider jargon. I would often find resumes saying Mr. or Ms. Jo Engineer worked in the Environmental Business Group (EBG). Did our clients need to see this acronym, or for that matter, did they care in which group Jo worked? No…and even worse when you don’t explain the acronym.

  • New people find it harder to get up to speed when you speak in acronyms. They put the onus on the new person to ask what “EBG” means, preventing an open dialogue of ideas and a welcoming workplace. If you MUST use acronyms in your workplace, why not give your new people a comprehensive list of insider acronyms so they won’t feel stupid?

Young Asian man with his head in his hands, sitting next to an Asian woman with a clipboard
  • Non-native English speakers find acronyms frustrating…especially when they are used without any explanation. It’s hard enough to learn this bizarre, complicated language without acronyms getting in the way of understanding.

  • Blind people rely on screen readers, which do not usually recognize abbreviations or acronyms. They read them as if they were typical words. Make your language accessible to all.

city map with Braille
  • Everyone’s comprehension is slowed down when your communications are littered with acronyms. They impede understanding…especially if you don’t know what they mean. Take for example the acronym BIPOC. Unless you’re up to speed with racial and social justice, you might not know what that means. But how often do you see people explain it means Black, Indigenous, and people of color? (That acronym has been widely debunked anyway.)

Do: use acronyms only when you make every attempt to help people understand.

Don’t: use acronyms if you can avoid it.

Let me know if you can use help moving beyond acronyms and into inclusive communications...or with internal or external communications, marketing, or leadership.

I help professional services firms avoid BORING and boost employee engagement, productivity, and readership. I translate technical, complex, and lackluster language into accessible, dynamic, story-driven text. Get known in your industry through outstanding thought leadership content. Walk your talk through outstanding, effective communications with your employees and clients.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.

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