Avoid abbreviations when writing an opening paragraph if the reader has no context. Focus instead on what the product does.
Employees everywhere complain about the pervasive use of abbreviations. They can be a useful shorthand that saves you from writing out names of things people are already familiar with. But other times, the reader is lost in the first sentence of a message.
Here’s how one company opened a news release: Zylox this week completed final testing of the Canadian Automated Air Traffic System (CAATS), marking the delivery of this world class Air Traffic Management (ATM) system. Developed for NAVCANADA, CAATS sets a new global standard in advanced ATM by providing air traffic controllers with a system that will help them meet the increasing demands of air traffic.
What that really means is this: Zylox has delivered a world-class computerized system to help Canada manage its air traffic. Final site tests were completed this week. The writer did not need to refer to Air Traffic Management system or to NAVCANADA, because that is not essential information.
Simplify the reference before using an acronym
Ease the reader into the body of a message (not just a news release) by providing a simplified summary in the opening sentence or two, a snapshot of what the main point is. In this case, it would have been sufficient to simply say that the company had won a contract to keep the Navy’s computer networks running. Specific names of programs or products can be mentioned further down, after the reader has context.
Throughout the message, you can use simpler references, rather than repeating the abbreviation. In the example above, you can alternate between mentioning the acronym (CAATS) and referring simply to Canada’s air traffic system, the new air traffic system, or simply the system. Refer to what it is or what it does, rather than by its complicated name. Although the Navy calls it the Common Afloat Local Area Network Infrastructure (CALLI), it is the process for providing computing support to submarines and ships.
Familiar abbreviations pose no problem, but in some industries, there are so many of them that people cannot possibly remember them all without pausing to think about them. This is a process called lexical retrieval, in which we retrieve meaning and images from the lexicon (vocabulary) stored in our brain. But people don’t want to waste a lot of time doing that unnecessarily.
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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.