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Do Something Different!

Today in a business writing class, I worked with nine people in sales in a successful global firm. When I showed them a slide with 24 acronyms and abbreviations they use in their writing, they admitted that they could not define or recognize all of them. (Remember: These were the acronyms and abbreviations they use.) They also admitted that they use four different abbreviations to refer to one of their most popular products.

If the national sales managers cannot define one another’s abbreviations, can their senior executives define them? How about the customer service reps, the dealer returns staff, or the legal department? If the sales team uses four different abbreviations as the name of a product, which one will the customers recognize? And what will customers think when they see the other three names?

One of the sales managers, who had been with the company only two months, told a story something like this:

When I came here, I saw that people used all these acronyms. I didn’t know what they meant, but then I started using them too. I wanted my writing to be like everyone else’s.

We all do what she did–we copy what others are doing because it seems to be successful. It seems to be the accepted style.

But we need to break out and do something different. We need to say, “Let’s stop using four different abbreviations to refer to one product! Let’s call it by its full name–or by one consistent abbreviation.”

And we need to be willing to slow down and spell out all those abbreviations, like this:

American Society for Training and Development (ASTD)

If one person starts spelling out abbreviations so they are clear to all readers, another person will do it too. Then spelling out abbreviations and acronyms has a chance to become the norm–just as using undefined acronyms is the norm now. Then new staff will say, “Everyone spells out acronyms here, so that is the style I will follow.”

Yes, it takes more time to spell out words. But we can also use a shortcut or macro to spell out the terms for us.

Why not do something different? Spell it out. Start a trend that will lead to clarity and understanding.


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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.