Why I avoid jargon and acronyms

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Ever been frustrated by a doctor or lawyer who's trying to explain something? Some professionals can only speak their trade's own specialized language, called jargon.

To outsiders, jargon sounds indirect and obscure. For example:

  • Should a doctor say that you had a myocardial infarction, or a heart attack?
  • Should an economist say that people are economically disadvantaged or poor?
  • Should a politician debate revenue enhancements or higher taxes?

Here's a simple way to test your own unconscious use of jargon. Record the next presentation you make, then play it back and listen closely. Better yet, play it back to your spouse or neighbor. 

Do you have to explain what you said? Do you speak in the specialized words of your trade, or do you speak plain English? What can you do to simplify your words? Avoiding jargon makes a huge difference when you want to be understood.

Acronyms are a subset of jargon. Acronyms are phrases that get shrunk into their initial capital letters. A handful of well-known acronyms need no explanation—AT&T, FBI, IBM, UPS and USA.

The problem is that most acronyms hold multiple meanings, even within a single field.

For example, to most people an ATM is an automatic teller machine, where we go to get cash. But:

  • In meteorology, ATM means atmosphere.
  • In transportation, ATM means air traffic management.
  • In computing and telecom, ATM means asynchronous transfer mode.
  • In medicine, ATM means awareness through movement.
  • In astronomy, ATM means Apollo telescope mount or amateur telescope maker.
  • In a text message, ATM means at the moment or across the miles.

When you hear "ATM," you're forced to guess what was meant. Your audience deserves better treatment.

Some acronyms are just plain stupid. Take, for example, the St. Thomas University of Public International Diplomacy (STUPID).

Making up new acronyms is a waste of time—yours and your audience's. Yet I hear requests for new acronyms all the time. Acronyms confuse your audience. They exclude people and leave audiences guessing. Confused people don't buy your product.

Even the most knowledgeable audience needs you to define each acronym right away, since some acronyms have double meanings even within a single field. If you must use an acronym or difficult term, it's best to define it the first time you say it. My advice: avoid acronyms altogether.

When I'm baffled by an unclear acronym, I jokingly tell people, "I'm in the SAA."

Then I go silent, to make them ask me what it means. "I belong to the Society Against Acronyms."

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