The Unintended Consequence of Acronyms: FOLS

huh_450When I started on P&G, I was handed a book I recall being about an inch thick that I was told would be my bible, my key to success for every interaction I would have on the business. Ready for it? It was… a dictionary of acronyms. And I tell you, it was as promised. Damn useful.

How many times have you sat in a meeting and thought, “What the hell is this weird language everyone is speaking?” And you look around and wonder if it’s just you. And then you finally decide to interject. “Excuse me, what does MSU mean?” And then inevitably at least one other person and most often more say, “Oh, thank God you asked that. I had no idea what they were talking about.” (It means Millions of Statistical Units, by the way, or said the way the rest of us might understand: sales.) The trick is asking the question before too long so you haven’t missed the entire point of the meeting before it has ended. (Much like asking to be reminded of someone’s name early on, not waiting until the fifth time you’ve spoken with them as that’s just way too late.)

FOLS. It’s in my headline. Have you figured it out yet? If you look it up, you’ll find a few possibilities. But neither Family of Loudspeaker Systems nor Front Office Light Services is what I’m referring to. Can’t guess? Ok, I’ll make you suffer no longer: Fear of looking stupid. I just made that up, but that’s the only reason we don’t ask clarifying questions earlier, and I bet someone really smart could do a study that revealed just how much more inefficient we all are because of FOLS.

Sitting in a meeting the other day, someone finally asked someone else what “attribution sales” meant on a chart. The explanation was a paragraph long. Then the questioner said, oh so you mean “view through?” Yes. Why would one use “attribution sales” when they could just say “view through?” Seriously, we’ve all just finally come to understand what the hell view through is in the past couple of years, and now someone starts calling it something different? Charts are hard enough to read as it is.

Now I have to admit something, however. The other day I was explaining “native content” to a friend outside the business and after I was done, my friend said, “like an advertorial?” Yes, actually, an advertorial. So I guess we’re all a little guilty, and it’s not always that someone is trying to use the power of the acronym to keep the upper hand (but I kinda believe sometimes that’s exactly what’s happening.)

Acronyms are intended to make communication simpler. But they often deliver the opposite effect. So here’s the lesson: know your audience and speak to them in a way you know they will understand. Translate before they have to ask you to do so, because they’re likely suffering from FOLS. And on the flip side, ask a clarifying question as soon as you have it. I’d guess only 10% of the time you’ll end up feeling stupid (hey, it happens.) But the other 90% of the time, you’ll make a whole bunch of new friends. I’m not a betting girl, but those are pretty good odds.


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