CIA. FBI. BFF. DOB. OTC. JIT. POP. HR. PBS. ABC. APA. NFL. EST. PPV. SSN. MD. SUV. OT. DND. NASDAQ. AKA. LOL.
There it is. The infamous ‘alphabet soup’ that publications like the AP Stylebook ward off whenever possible. The APA Stylebook also suggests avoiding the use of these shortened words. Abbreviations haven’t been in existence for long, but they have pervaded every facet of the English language. From industry lingo and agency program titles to text messaging shorthand and organization names, abbreviation usage has been on the rise since its inception in 1840 during Martin Van Buren’s presidential campaign. Supporters of Van Buren manipulated his nickname, ‘Old Kinderhook,’ by shortening it to ‘O.K.’ And even before that, abbreviations were used extensively in the Sumerian language to conserve writing space. Ultimately, the O.K. campaign initiated the abbreviation generations for the English language. And that was just the beginning. According to Garland Cannon’s Abbreviations and Acronyms in English Word Formation, World War One saw the increased systematic implementation of abbreviations in business, government, and day-to-day life. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, acronym usage was off the charts, however, initialisms began their flow through society throughout the course of World War Two. One author released a 207-page book titled, Current Abbreviations in 1945.
Throughout the past century and a half, the purpose of the abbreviation has altered significantly. What was once a necessity due to a lack of writing resources and precise time management capabilities, has now become a tool of expedience.
To further muddle the abbreviation pond, there are different types – acronyms and initialisms. Both are typically formed by stringing together the first letter or two of every word in a particular phrase. An acronym is pronounced as al word, while an initialism is not. For example, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is an acronym, while FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is an initialism. At its base form, an abbreviation is just a word that has been shortened. So, what does all of this mean for the presenter in the government or healthcare sector, or the presenter just sorting through a pile of abbreviations? Here are 4 ways that abbreviations could be crushing your presentation:
1. Abbreviations convey laziness
When a presenter utilizes an abbreviation, it indicates to the audience that he or she procrastinated on the presentation and didn’t have time to type out the whole phrase, or that he or she just didn’t want to put in the effort to do so. Avoid approaching your presentation like a teenager approaches a text message for a BFF. One study found that although many students know the difference between formal and informal communication and written word, they don’t actually learn and retain this information because they aren’t applying it outside of the school environment. Crossing the abbreviation line could place you on the fast track to a disinterest audience that doesn’t trust you or your message.
2. Abbreviations establish informality
According to a study of librarians’ online communications with clients by James K. Elmborg and Sheril Hook, abbreviations were among the strategies (as well as emoticons and chat shortcuts) employed to display informality. The use of abbreviations led to a breaking down of interpersonal barriers in that environment. As a presenter, you will need to determine the level of formality you want to achieve through your presentation and if your decision will resonate well with your audience.
3. Abbreviations appear technical
On the flip side, abbreviations could operate like jargon – separating the informed from the uninformed. You are likely giving a presentation to better acquaint the audience with your organization, so don’t enhance the barrier to entry by throwing abbreviations, acronyms, or initialism at them. Many audience members will tune out and you will lose your credibility as a presenter. For example, let’s say you are an executive director of a state government agency and you are presenting to an audience of local government officials about a new economic development program offering. In this situation, the executive director could be speaking to a city mayor and redevelopment commission members, some of which may not know anything about your agency in general, much less the new program you are essentially promoting. An acronym would not provide any meaning to people who are not well-versed in your agency. Since the main goal of this presentation would be to inform the audience about the program, you will want them to attach meaning to the name of the program – not the program acronym. For the most part, acronym use should be relegated to internal communications.
4. Abbreviations confuse audiences
As abbreviations became more commonplace, organizations and agencies outside of government crafted a multitude of their own ingredients to contribute to the ‘alphabet soup.’ And the way an abbreviation is communicated drastically impacts whether or not an individual will resonate with it. Abbreviations are constructed similarly to words, but there are several ways presenters use them that affect audience comprehension.
When emailing, you can implement a cc. You can also be cc-ing someone in that email. If an abbreviation is capable of serving in a noun and verb capacity, it is an example of conversion.
Derivation occurs when an abbreviation has a prefix or a suffix added to it, such as NFL-er (National Football League) or pro-RNC (Republican National Committee) and pro-DNC (Democratic National Committee).
An abbreviation that reflects attribution would be Mac PC, which stands for a Microsoft personal computer.
Compounding occurs when an abbreviation is combined with a derivation or attribution, creating even more complexity.
Blending is the most complex of all the abbreviation constructions – mixing an abbreviation with a section of another word. This tactic is usually used to evoke humor or wit.
An abbreviation can be presented in one of the aforementioned ways to disseminate information to your audience. But the decision to follow through with abbreviation usage depends on the level of knowledge and understanding that you believe your audience has about the abbreviation and your organization, agency, or business. And this means you must practice intentional awareness.
Abbreviations are everywhere. Just last week my mom texted me and asked me what BOII meant. A testament to the validity of the results obtained through a recent study of kids’ text-speak, which found that ¾ of parents have to ask their kids about the meaning behind their abbreviations. Despite my repertoire as her millennial daughter, I had no clue as to what the acronym meant. My mother obviously addressed the wrong audience when she sent that inquiry to me. The next time you are tempted to insert an abbreviation, acronym, or initialism, think about your audience; analyze the way you might use it; and make a decision on the ultimate utility of probable confusion over typing or pronouncing a few extra letters. Want to learn more about abbreviations? Check out the following resources: