It’s almost impossible to give a technical presentation without using acronyms.
It’s often difficult, ineffective, and unnecessary to eliminate acronyms when you’re giving a presentation as a technical expert to other technical experts in your own field.
But how about when you’re giving a technical presentation to a non-technical audience? Or to an audience that’s mixed: some technical experts in your field, some people who are experts in other technical fields, and some people who aren’t technical in a strict sense (sales and marketing, HR, finance, legal)?
Two general principles govern the use of acronyms in any technical presentation: 1) Clarity, and 2) Credibility.
First, you have to be clear.
If you confuse your audience, you lose them.
When you use an acronym that your audience doesn’t understand, they’ll try to figure it out. The problem is, while they’re parsing what you said, they stop listening to what you’re currently saying. Which is a bad thing.
If they can’t figure out what you mean and if you confuse them often enough, they’ll stop listening to you altogether. They may even resent you.
So, above all else, be clear.
Second, you have to be credible.
There are, of course, many ways to establish credibility in a technical presentation: being personally credible (shown by your experience, education, and reputation), an abundance of evidence, and well-reasoned logic.
(See my piece on How to Establish Credibility in a Speech or Presentation.)
A subtle, but effective way to sound credible as an expert in your technical field is to speak the language of that field.
And that’s where acronyms come into play.
Acronyms are the shorthand that technical experts use when speaking to each other.
A familiarity and ease with acronyms communicate to people in the field that “you’re one of us.”
Two rules govern using acronyms in a technical presentation: 1) Use acronyms everyone understands, and/or 2) Explain them as you use them.
If you’re sure that everyone in your audience knows an acronym, use it. Don’t pause. Don’t explain it. Simply use it as you’d use any other commonly understood word.
The trick here, of course, is being sure that everyone knows what the acronym means.
Explaining the acronym is more effective than spelling it out.
Simply spelling out an acronym doesn’t necessarily make it any clearer. Not to those who aren’t already in the know.
For example, saying a POA&M is a Plan of Actions and Milestones may not help someone unfamiliar with the term. It’s better to say something like, “A POA&M is a management tool for outlining and tracking a complex development or remediation project through its various steps.”
That short explanation may be enough, depending on the audience and the reason you’re using the acronym in the first place.
It’s up to you to know your audience and your presentation’s objective to determine how best to use acronyms. Don’t avoid using them. But don’t assume that everyone will understand them.
Above all else, be clear and be credible.