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Acronyms and Your CEO

Acronyms deserve their bad reputation. Those TLAs (three-letter acronyms) are guilty of excluding, confusing, and delaying readers. And what’s worse–many times we can’t agree on what they stand for. Nevertheless, like carbohydrates, snowmobiles, and pigeons, there’s a place for them.

For example, CEO is just right in the title of this post. That’s because all readers recognize it, and "Chief Executive Officer" is simply too long in this situation. Between experts too, it’s unnecessary and can be downright odd to spell things out. With a group of corporate trainers, for instance, my use of "American Society for Training and Development" rather than ASTD would paint me as an outsider.

In the July issue of T&D, ASTD’s monthly magazine, Editor Rex Davenport made a case for when not to bring acronyms to the table: when it’s the senior executive table, and you are not the senior exec. He used the example of SME for "Subject Matter Expert," especially when pronounced smee.

Davenport writes:

" . . . the road to miscommunication is paved with three-letter bombs. And when you turn those acronyms into odd-sounding words, you are hurting yourself. Do you really think your CEO is going to pause for even one second to ask you what a Smee is? Don’t bet on it."

He provided this guidance:

"If a term doesn’t show up every day in The Wall Street Journal, don’t use it with your boss. If you have earned a seat at the big table, don’t undermine your presence by speaking in anything less than clear, concise business terms."

The same applies to business writing. My guideline is this: WIDSIO.

When in doubt, spell it out.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.