October 28, 2019 ~ 3 min read

Why we all love acronyms

Weekly TipsSpeakingWriting

Why do people love acronyms so much?

Why have things like 'WTF' (what the f*ck) and 'TL;DR' (too long; didn't read) made their way out of "text" culture into things we actually say out loud?

And why does it seem like every specialized profession comes with a stack of acronyms so large that conversations between specialists are completely opaque?

I think the answer comes back to 2 key aspects for how people perceive information: memory and perspective.

How acronyms help us with limited working memory

In a previous post I wrote about how human beings can only hold a limited number of 'chunks' in our working memory.

Acronyms are a great way to 'chunk' information. While we may have to think deeply about it when we first encounter it, once we're familiar with it, the acronym is a great "stand in" for the chunk of information.

And while common 'themes' are often able to be chunked together, acronyms provide a simple way to hold even very disparate concepts together, and remind ourselves what those pieces are.

Sometimes the 'grouped' concept or 'chunk' even becomes so widespread that we forget the original. I had no idea that RADAR stands for 'Radio Detection And Ranging'. What used to be a complicated concept combining multiple things has been consolidated to a single idea.

How acronyms can create shared perspective

I also wrote recently about the importance of creating shared languages to better understand each other.

Acronyms can fill this need as well - because they can encapsulate very large sets of particular information in a short phrase, they can stand in for large amounts of carefully discussed and debated ideas.

It may take a great deal of work to define an acronym for someone the first time, but once that work is done the acronym can be used to very concisely describe something that others familiar with the acronym will understand.

This is why acronyms become so powerful and common for conversations within specialisations.

Implications for communication

There's a couple of key implications of this thinking for you as you try to improve your communication skills.

First, if you find yourself using acronyms, check in with your audience to make sure they understand them. The same acronyms that greatly speed up and facilitate conversation between two experts in a specialty can make for a baffling conversation for outsiders or juniors in the field.

Second, if you're trying to encapsulate a lot of information for someone to understand and remember, consider coming up with an acronym yourself.

This is why acronyms are so commonly used by teachers and influencers - they are wonderful memory aids to help you remember teachings.


Acronyms are useful to help us remember and encapsulate complex ideas. But make sure when you use them, you check in with your audience that they understand the acronyms.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.