Acronyms block road to clarity

Acronyms block road to clarity

EVER been so caught up in your KPIs you forgot the pm meeting with the COO?

This column is not devoted to forgetfulness, but acronyms.

They are the bane of modern business writing.

The opening sentence is seemingly straightforward. KPIs are key performance indicators and COO is chief operating officer.

PM, most would assume, means afternoon or post meridiem.

But it could refer to the prime minister, a past master, maybe the paymaster, possibly the postmaster, or if you are dressed in khaki, the provost marshal.

That is one problem with acronyms. They can mean different things to different people.

That is if they mean anything to anyone at all.

Acronyms are often an extension of bureaucratese. One of our former PMs is a master of both.

While discussing foreign policy at Washington’s Brookings Institution he referred to CSBM (confidence and security-building measures). At a conference for Progressive Governance in England in 2008 he spoke of EWS (early-warning system), RTP (right to protect), CCS (carbon capture and storage), and IFIs (pronounced iffeys, international financial institutions).

When he chaired the session on climate change, he reminded speakers to keep their contribution to three minutes. The first speaker exceeded the time limit. Our former PM joked in a warning to the next speaker, Jens Stoltenberg of Norway: ‘‘Jens, if you go beyond three minutes, your ODA goes up 0.1 per cent.’’

Apparently no one laughed, possibly because they were deciphering the acronym ODA (overseas development aid).

Our man was also responsible for: ‘‘The parallel ideological synergies, vis-a-vis the development opportunity momentum in our own constituencies … that’s where the low-hanging fruit lies.’’

Be mindful of using acronyms whether you are writing internally, or externally to clients. Even if you are 100per cent sure the reader will know what you are talking about, it is better to err on the side of caution.

It is easy to ‘‘write around’’ acronyms.

Newspapers are not the style arbiters of all writing, but they go daily to a wide audience and have an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Newspapers rarely use acronyms.

They did once, but acronyms have become pervasive and ‘‘modern’’ newspaper style is to ‘‘write around’’ them.

Reading text cluttered with acronyms is difficult. They act as reading speed-humps. Also, in terms of presentation, a page or screen of succinct sentences looks much better than text full of capital letters.

Making the effort to ‘‘write around’’ the acronym actually forces an edit of the whole sentence, and therefore a better result.

If you persist in using acronyms to an audience unfamiliar with the terms, don’t expect a warm response, or any response at all.

One very important acronym is CEO. Too often today it stands for chief editing officer. The boss shouldn’t be reading poorly constructed sentences with spelling mistakes, nor correspondence full of acronyms.

VC could be the head of a university to one reader, and a Holden Commodore to another.

Famously, in Berlin during a European tour and addressing German journalists and Chancellor Angela Merkel, our former PM said it was unlikely any progress would emerge from the MEF (Major Economies Forum) by way of detailed programmatic specificity.

That is enough to make anyone say they ‘‘gotta zip’’.

Darrell Croker is an expert in writing for business.