October 2nd, 2012 .


Pat Morden

I’ve recently started a new consulting gig in a healthcare setting. I attend regular meetings at which senior managers report on activities in their areas of the organization. For the first few weeks, I must admit that most of the discussion went right over my head.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fairly quick study, and I’ve worked in health care communications on and off for many years. It was the acronyms that did me in. They’ve got one (or two or three) for almost everything. And of course, they all know what the acronyms stand for.

Acronyms are a quick and easy way to refer to things that have long and complicated names. As long as everyone we’re talking to has the same knowledge base, why not?

The problem is, acronyms are a bit like Twizzlers (my current addiction). It starts out harmlessly enough with the occasional one or two, but before you know it, you’re using them almost without noticing.

Fortunately, acronyms have zero calories. But they can confuse or exclude.

So what’s to do? In writing, use acronyms correctly. For the first reference, use the full title or phrase, followed by the acronym in parentheses. Then use the acronym consistently throughout. Avoid using other short versions of the title or phrase in the same document.

In verbal communication, if you’re absolutely confident that everyone is comfortable with the acronyms, fire away. If you’re not sure, avoid them. If that’s not possible, define each acronym the first time you use it. If you’re speaking for some time, don’t hesitate to return to the full title, just in case your audience has forgotten.

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