Archives For acronyms

aconym hellAcronyms have their place and usefulness  in a technical presentation as long as–and only if–your audience understands them.

An acronym is formed from the first letters of other words and is treated and pronounced as if it were a word. Like NATO (North American Treaty Organization) or WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant).

Most things we call acronyms are, to be technical, initialisms: abbreviations formed by the first letters of each word in a phrase. Like FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)  or ATM (Automated Teller Machine).

I’m not that technical so, like most people, I’m going to lump initialisms together with acronyms and treat them the same.

The common advice for people giving technical presentations is to spell out acronyms if your audience doesn’t know them.

There’s no need to spell out an acronym if you’re sure your audience knows what it means. When you’re addressing other technical experts, spelling out a commonly understood acronym only makes you sound silly or condescending.

And don’t spell out an acronym that is more commonly known as an acronym than the series of words it’s made up of. People know what an ATM is. They may have to think twice if you call it an automated teller machine.

Instead of spelling out an acronym, define it.

Spelling out an acronym doesn’t always make it any clearer.

For example, if you simply say that GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, you haven’t clarified matters much.

It’s better to say something like, “GIS, a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface…” (from

Explanations make acronyms clearer, but sometimes–depending on your audience’s knowledge (or lack of it)–you need to go one step further.

After explaining an acronym, give an example.

After defining GIS you might say, “It’s because of GIS that you can see where the nearest Starbucks is on Google Maps and you can monitor a hurricane making its way toward land.”

If you really need the audience to understand the acronym–if it’s an important part of what you’re talking about–first spell it out, then define it, and finally give an example of it.


Photo courtesy of Xavier  Verges at Flick

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