Abbreviations - HTAGWT (How To Avoid Grief With Them)

This email is on PTAs. Not Parent-Teachers Associations, but Principles and Tips for Abbreviations. Abbreviations create short cuts and save time. BBC. USA. NATO.

But we can go wrong with them. Here are tips to ensure you don’t.

Avoid polysyllabic abbreviations and ones that are too similar to each other: “The RPPRC will do the RPPR today”. RPPR is the Regional Post Project Review, and RPPRC is the committee that does it, but the abbreviations are visually too close to each other. We must concentrate to distinguish them. Also, RPPR is four syllables and RPPRC five, and that produces a stumble effect when reading. Instead, shorten to PR ('Project Review') and PC ('Project Committee'). Or create defined words. RPPR = 'the Review' and RPPRC = 'the Committee'. Hence: “The Committee will do the Review today”. No abbreviations, decoding, stumbling. It even reads like English. Much better.

Avoid too many at once: “The NPV under IFRS is £1m, and the IRR of the DCF is 12%”. To an accountant, each abbreviation is fine individually, but they’re tough collectively. HTU (Hard To Understand). It’s like Robin Williams’ speech in Good Morning Vietnam: “Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn't we keep the PC on the QT? ‘Cause if it leaks to the VC he could end up MIA, and then we'd all be put on KP”. Remember: no-one ever says: “PUMA” (Please Use More Acronyms…).

Assume that people spot your contrivances: in a d(r)aft paper two years ago, a trade body espoused its values as PRIDE. P for Professional – which it then explained included being ethical – yet the E of PRIDE is also Ethical. Did it need E and P? Maybe it was to avoid the values being DIRE. Or DRIP. The postscript: when the trade body published its final paper, PRIDE had gone. Seemingly, it wasn’t so proud of it after all.

A fun acronym: just before Robert Maxwell’s empire went bust in the 1990s, an analyst famously wrote a scathing review entitled: "Can’t Recommend A Purchase".

Don’t use them to deceive: last year, many UK newspapers had an ad. For newspaper ads. It showed a big '570%' and said: “Newspaper ads dramatically increase a marketing campaign’s ROI”. However, the ad’s website said that ROI is revenue on investment, even though ROI is always thought of as return on investment. It’s a big difference – an ad might generate revenue, but if the ad costs a lot, we’re worse off and it's a bad return. Dodgy. (It got worse … the website said £1.49 of revenue becomes £8.47 with newspaper ads. That’s a 470% increase, not 570%.)

Two final thoughts on the ad: (1) I believe the '570%' error is an accident - as von Goethe said: “Why look for conspiracy when stupidity can explain so much?”; and (2): I’d give the ad an AAA-grade – and as it says on my website, that’s Absolutely Achingly Awful. Here’s the ad’s webpage (and half-way down is a click-through to a supporting 36-page PowerPoint pack, replete with funky colours and groovy page-filling graphs).

If this email works for you, do also read my email on the related topic of jargon ('Jargon - when it's fine and when it isn't').


PS: three final tips on abbreviations (and they might seem obvious, but given what I see in reports, maybe they aren’t):

(1) don’t assume people know the abbreviation - many don’t, yet are too embarrassed to ask; never overestimate people’s knowledge (but never underestimate their intelligence).

(2) define on first use: “We look at genetically modified products ('GM')”, albeit no need to define BBC, USA, etc.

(3) maybe even do a glossary at the front or back of the report.



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