Nathan Tanner

Acronyms: are they helping or hurting communication?

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

One of the best books I read last year was the Elon Musk biography from Ashlee Vance. Musk’s entrepreneurial accomplishments are legendary, and there’s much to learn from this well-written, well-researched book.

But the most important lesson I learned has nothing to do with Musk’s innovations in space travel, clean energy, or electric cars.

In May 2010, Musk sent a company-wide email to all employees at SpaceX. Something was bothering him and he wanted everyone’s attention. The subject line of his email? Acronyms Seriously Suck. Here’s an excerpt.

“There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important.

Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees.”

At first glance, Musk’s tone seems a little strong. Surely a CEO has more important things to worry about, right? Maybe. But have you ever joined a new organization or team and felt completely lost by the flurry of acronyms? Have you ever sat quietly in a meeting as others used acronyms you didn’t understand? I know I have.

Acronyms are not bad per se, but in today’s workplace we use them all too frequently. One of my friends recently joined a company that maintains an internal list of over 700 acronyms. 700! Can you imagine trying to learn that many acronyms at a new company? It’s absurd.

Musk points out that acronyms are especially hard on new employees. We all know that making the decision to leave a job to start a new one is difficult. The growing pains faced when making these kinds of changes are real, and getting up to speed in a new role does not come overnight.

In fact, it takes the average new hire 8 to 12 months to gain proficiency at a level comparable to their tenured co-workers. Additionally, 40% of employees who leave their job voluntarily do so within six months of starting in the position.

Can eliminating unnecessary acronyms reduce turnover and time to proficiency of new hires? It’s certainly a cost-effective place to start. Here’s a quick exercise that can help:

  1. Make a list of the acronyms you frequently use at work.
  2. For each one, ask yourself whether using the acronym helps or hurts communication.
  3. If it helps communication, make sure all employees you interact with know what the acronyms stand for.
  4. If using the acronym hurts communication, stop using it and encourage your colleagues to follow suit.

If you’re still not sure, consider taking a few minutes to discuss acronyms at your next team meeting. Review the acronyms your team regularly uses, and ask for their honest feedback.

Eliminating unnecessary acronyms, and clearly defining the necessary ones, will help your organization communicate more clearly and effectively. It’s not rocket science.

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