Make your meetings and presentations more efficient by avoiding jargon and acronyms

TLAs.001My communications classes always include a slide like the one above because it’s advice that every writer, presenter, or meeting participant can stand to hear.

And because it’s always good for a joke.

As I talk about how jargon, technical terms, and obscure acronyms that are intended to save time actually lead to confusion and waste it, I can always depend on someone in the audience to raise their hand to ask what a TLA is.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “It’s a three letter acronym for Three Letter Acronym.” Cue the laughter.

I recently came across a blog post from Adobe’s General Counsel, Mike Dillon, who says that the overuse of acronyms in his workplace is out of control:

At Adobe we take it to an entirely new level. Acronym usage is so rampant here that an internal market has developed with employees trading lists of company acronyms like they are some sort of corporate Rosetta Stone.

As an example, I recently attended a meeting where we reviewed the performance of a number of our businesses. During one ten minute period, I jotted down the following acronyms that were used during a presentation: “VIP”, “ARR”, “CLP”,” TLP”, “GTM”, “CCM”, “SMB”, “ETLA”, “POSA”, “STE”, “CS6”, “CC”, “EOL”, “STL”,” DPS”, “COGS”, “OEM”, “ROW”, “MD&P”,  “CAGR” and “CCE”. One of the presenters even achieved the linguistic equivalent of running the four-minute mile by using an impressive seven acronyms in a single sentence!

But he realizes after the meeting that he’s been so busy trying to figure out the speakers’ acronyms that he hasn’t really heard their presentations:

And for presenters, that’s a real problem. You put countless hours developing a presentation so that you can inform or influence your audience. That work is wasted if your audience doesn’t understand your message.

So, here’s a novel idea. How about considering the audience you are addressing? Are you certain that everyone in the room understands the acronyms you are using? If not, use the full words or phrase at the beginning of your presentation before you begin using the acronym.

Your future audiences will thank you and your presentations will be far more effective.

Of course he’s right. As presenters, writers, and everyday communicators of information, it’s critical that we are as clear as possible. If there’s any possible doubt that your audience might not understand an acronym or a technical term, make sure to spell it out for them. Saving a few syllables isn’t worth it if there’s a chance that your audience is going to mistake the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) for an STD.

But audiences also need to take some responsibility here. If you find yourself in meetings that rely on a lot of jargon and acronyms that could be confusing, ask people to clarify what they’re talking about. Speaking up to admit that you don’t understand can be difficult, but working together to eliminate the mysterious letter stew used within your organization can help make the whole team more efficient.

Mike Dillon: IMHO

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Every Meeting Needs An Agenda (But Maybe Not An Agenda Slide)

DSC04780I was happy to see this blackboard welcoming guests to the wedding reception for my friends Sarah and Joey because it illustrates one of the most important rules for any meeting, presentation, or formal gathering. They all need to have an agenda. You don’t want to leave your guests in the dark about what your meeting is about, why they’ve been invited, or when the food trucks are going to start serving dinner. Otherwise people may feel anxious, annoyed, or cranky from their low blood sugar.

That doesn’t mean your agenda has to be a formal document that’s distributed in advance (though that’s often best). Agendas can take many forms, including a few bullet points in a calendar invitation, an overview of goals and topics to be discussed at the opening of a meeting, or a brief outline written on a whiteboard at the front of a conference room. An entirely appropriate agenda might just exist in the head of the meeting planner. But all meetings need to have an agenda in order to keep them on track and make sure they have a legitimate reason for happening. As a general rule, the more important the meeting, the more important it is to have a formal agenda and share it with attendees to make sure that everyone’s goals are being met.

Unfortunately, too many meetings don’t have an agenda at all. Some meeting organizers are just bad planners and think they’ll wing it, while others don’t like the structured formality of a written agenda. But the most frequent excuse I hear–by far–is that writing an agenda and distributing it in advance takes too much time. Of course this idea is terribly short-sighted. Creating a good agenda allows you to use the time you and your co-workers spend in meetings much more efficiently, and should even allow you to cancel the meetings that you really don’t need to have.

Agreeing that every meeting should have an agenda, that it’s shared in advance, and that it’s used to make sure the meeting stays on track is probably the single-most effective thing you can do to improve the productivity of your workplace. Have you ever sat through an entire meeting wondering why you’d been invited? Have you been to a weekly status meeting where no one had anything new to report? Chances are no one had taken the time to write agendas for those meetings. If you find that you or the people you work with are having a hard time coming up with agendas, it might be time to start thinking about whether you should be having those meetings at all. Cancel them instead and use the time you reclaim to actually get some work done.

What you might not always want to do is include an agenda slide in your presentations. An agenda slide can be a great tool to give attendees a quick idea of what they’re going to hear, but many presenters wind up spending so much time explaining their agenda slides that they effectively give their presentation twice, once when they talk about the agenda, then again as they read through their slides. Few things are more boring for an audience. If you can give your entire presentation just by discussing an agenda slide, consider doing it that way. Your audience will appreciate it.

More Productive Meetings: Jeff Bezos Bans Slides At Amazon

Yesterday I saw Washington Post chairman and CEO Donald Graham talking about the decision to sell his newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. What really caught my attention was his explanation that he felt good about the sale partly because Bezos believes in writing:

He’s a reader and he’s a writer. Unusually, out at Amazon, meetings don’t start with slide presentations or PowerPoints. At Jeff’s request, they start with whoever convenes the meeting writing an essay. The first 10 minutes, everybody sits down and reads what the person convening the meeting wrote.

Why? Because he thinks writing requires thought. So that is a little tribute to the power of the written word.

I have no way of knowing if it’s true that PowerPoint is banned from the beginning of all meetings at Amazon, but I love the idea. Requiring people to write out their ideas in sentences and paragraphs complete with context, transitions, and conclusions would help overcome some of the sloppy and incomplete thinking that slides and bullet points lend to so many meetings.

Even better, the idea of having to write an essay might convince people to cancel many of the meetings that only waste everyone’s time.

Donald Graham on PBS Newshour