One of my pet hates is acronyms (not to be confused with anachronisms – which also annoy me but for different reasons). I’m often involved in conversations with technical people and have to stop and ask: “What does that mean?” – not because I’m stupid (although I have to fight the feeling that I might be), but for me to understand something correctly, I need to make as few assumptions as possible about the meaning. 

Today my heart skipped a beat when I had an email referring to a “PI” issue.  In my head PI means Professional Indemnity. Quickly, my head filled with fear. What could have gone wrong to cause us to talk to our insurance provider? Thankfully, I quickly realised we were talking about a new service provider we’re working with called Practice Ignition which is helping make our Fixed Price Agreements (FPA) a slicker operation – Panic over!

But sometimes they are necessary

I can understand why it is very tempting, and sometimes necessary, to turn a title or phrase into a smaller package.  For example, a conversation about “the NHS” is certainly more time efficient than a conversation where you’re having to say “The National Health Service” in full over and over. The difference is, in this instance, we’re talking about a famous national institution. There’s a strong likelihood you could turn to any stranger on the street and ask “What is the NHS” and they’d instantly know what you were referring to.

With finance and tax there’s a strong temptation to abbreviate and form new acronyms.  I think that NI (for National Insurance) is fine, but sometimes just referring to the government department that overseas taxes can be complicated. Technically it is Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) but this only came into existence in 2004.  Before then the income tax side of the organisation had a different name.  I often heard it referred to at HMIT (Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue) or IR (Inland Revenue).  The acronym you use is likely to depend on what they were called when you first had dealings with the UK tax service.

But sometimes a barrier to good communication

So why does this get my goat?  Because Acronyms on a technical level end up confusing others and sometimes only make sense to the person who used it first.  New staff can get lost in the jumble of letters and to customers and suppliers they can become a barrier to good and effective communication.

One of our aims is to communicate well and avoid jargon at all times.  Some of our advice can be complex but having this principle helps us avoid some of the pitfalls that can often make advisers sound like they are just trying to prove how clever they are.  I am not interested in making you think I am clever.  I am interested in providing effective advice. I am a big fan of Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) as rule for communication.

My favourite piece of real life advice that puts this much more succinctly is an email that Elon Musk sent his staff in 2010.  Ok, he is the billionaire behind Tesla and SpaceX and was pivotal in developing PayPal so he operates in a different sphere to most of us, but he is an inspirational leader:

Elon Musk’s original email:

“There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees.

That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action—I have given enough warnings over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary. If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past.

For example, there should be no “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a *test* stand. VTS-3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod,” which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name!

The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication. An acronym that most engineers outside of SpaceX already know, such as GUI, is fine to use. It is also ok to make up a few acronyms/contractions every now and again, assuming I have approved them, e.g., MVac and M9 instead of Merlin 1C-Vacuum or Merlin 1C-Sea Level, but those need to be kept to a minimum.”

(quoted from Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future, by Ashlee Vance, Virgin Books, 2015)



Am I a hypocrite?  I love working here at A4G.  Our name is an acronym for Advisers for Growth.  But this, in my eyes, is different because it is a term to identify with not a technical term that could cause confusion.  As long as our advice is clear, jargon free and effective then we are fulfilling the objective our name suggests.

Are there ways you can communicate more effectively with your colleagues and customers? No one is perfect and we’d love to share some thoughts you have so that together we can make sure we can break down barriers to better understanding and ultimately better quality advice?

*Laugh out loud (based on post 1998 lingo, not Lots of Love as I have heard others refer to it)

josh curties our veterinary specialist

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Josh Curties

BA (Hons) FCA

Partner & Principal Adviser

01474 853856

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