What do TED talks, the president of the United States, and the key message in the book Made to Stick have in common?
Simply this – they’re all known by acronyms:
- TED for Technology, Entertainment, Design
- POTUS for President Of The United States
- SUCCES from Made to Stick.
You might be wondering what that has to do with your talk or presentation. Well, coining your own acronym can help you neatly and compellingly convey your core message or call-to-action.
That’s what I often do with my own content, using acronyms like FiRST, Aim, or PACE. And as you can tell from me citing 3 examples that I’ve coined, I love acronyms!
I’m not the only one, either. Near the end of this post, you’ll find a list of acronyms used by many other speaking-coaches, including:
- Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen and other books on presenting
- Craig Valentine, former World Champion of Public Speaking
- Ellen Finkelstein, Microsoft PowerPoint MVP
An acronym can be great for you and your audience
So let me try to convince you why an acronym can be great for you and your audience. (That is, provided you apply your acronym strategically to a vital part of your talk, especially your core message or call-to-action.)
By the way, in this post we’ll focus on acronyms where each letter represents a separate term, like a series of steps or attributes (rather than acronyms that stand for phrases). For instance, PACE stands for making your talk Personal, Actionable, Conversational, and Emotional.
5 benefits you get from an acronym
In essence, you and your audience get 5 benefits from an acronym, in that it’s:
You can click any of those headings to jump to the related part of this post. (Or, just read on.) And you’ll also find these topics near the end:
- Cautions for using acronyms
- Closing thoughts
- Your turn
- Examples – public-speaking acronyms from other writers
- See also (Including people’s advice against using acronyms!)
M – MemorableScroll up to Contents ↑
A well-designed acronym’s made to be memorable! Typically, it’s a short word of just 1 or 2 syllables, which makes the term itself easy to remember. And of course, an acronym also subtly prompts people to remember your key content (which it stands for).
Recalling what an acronym stands for can be tricky. So, to help people…
Mind you, sometimes recalling what an acronym actually stands for can be tricky. So to help people, I suggest you use these tips too, which I’ve sorted from most to least crucial:
- Spell the acronym correctly, and preferably don’t reuse any letters. (So SUCCES from Made to Stick is far from ideal! To find my idea for what might’ve been a better acronym to use in place of SUCCES, see this comment below.)
- Where you can, if your acronym stands for a series of separate terms, make each letter stand for the same part of speech. For instance, the acronym PACE stands for 4 adjectives – Personal, Actionable, Conversational, and Emotional. (Again, SUCCES isn’t ideal because its first 4 letters stand for adjectives, but its last is a noun.)
- Use icons (or iconic photos) to show each part of your acronym. For instance, that’s what I do with these iconic photos for FiRST.
- Ideally, make the parts rhyme or sound similar. For example, in PACE, each part ends with an “-LL” sound: Personal, Actionable, Conversational, Emotional.
- For maximum effect – if you can – make the whole word’s meaning relate to your message. For instance, when advising speakers about focusing audience attention, I use the acronym Aim, which sounds like people are staring at a target. (Still, don’t force it. You’ve likely spent years building the wisdom behind your message, so you need to preserve its integrity! Better that than to harm your message just so it fits into a contrived acronym.)
Use icons (or iconic photos) to show each part
O – OrganisedScroll up to Contents ↑
Your acronym shows you’ve organised your content
Your acronym shows you’ve organised your content into distinct “chunks”, and a well-organised message is much easier for your audience to understand and remember.
Plus, sharing your talk’s clear structure with your audience helps you come across as thoroughly prepared, which makes you more credible. And it even conveys that you’ve considered your audience’s needs (by making your content memorable and organised), which makes you more likeable.
So, people will be far more open to your message. If you’re lucky, they might even go as far as thinking to themselves something like:
“This seems simple and well structured.
I can tell the speaker’s already done the hard mental work for me.
So this’ll be a breeze compared to most talks I sit through…”
You’ve packaged it like an easy-to-swallow capsule
All that makes your message highly persuasive, because you’ve packaged it like an easy-to-swallow capsule, and people want solutions to be as easy as popping a pill – like in the thriving “diet pill” industry!
I – IntriguingScroll up to Contents ↑
When you start to speak, if (for instance) you mention you’ll discuss 4 points – but you don’t give details – you’ll gently intrigue people about what those points are.
You’ll make people curious about what each letter means
To intrigue people more, if you say that your points’ initials form a word, and you tell people what the word is, you’ll make people curious about what each letter means.
That helps to engage your audience, making them think about your content right from the start of your talk. What’s more, if you include your acronym in your talk’s title or your promotional material, you can even engage people before you speak.
For instance, Hugh Culver recommends you SLAP your audience so they remember you. That conjures up such a vivid, provocative mental image, that it’s memorable and highly intriguing. (Are you curious what SLAP stands for? I certainly was, and I strongly recommend you read Hugh’s brief post to find out – his advice is priceless.)
S – ShareableScroll up to Contents ↑
An acronym’s perfect for sharing your message
Because your acronym’s just 1 word that encapsulates your core message or call-to-action, it’s perfect for sharing your message on social media. And that’s especially true on space-limited platforms like Twitter, or in memes.
There’s no need to restrict yourself to social media though. As well-known speaker and author Nancy Duarte puts it:
“Small, repeatable sound bites help feed the press with headlines,
…energize social media channels with insights,
and give employees a rallying cry.”
So acronyms are also great for traditional, short-form marketing materials – like banners, badges or T-shirts (where stories are complete non-starters of course).
And, if your acronym strikes a chord with people, they’ll share it too, giving your message far more reach. That’s made more likely because an acronym’s easy for your listeners and followers to pass on, even without any skill – unlike telling a story.
To encourage your listeners and followers to share your acronym, you could make it emotive, witty, or fitting for your topic or audience. For instance:
- Nancy Duarte uses the acronym STAR moment, meaning a dramatic, unforgettable time in a talk. The metaphor seems fitting, given that stars have made people gaze and gasp for aeons.
- If you’re speaking to, say, graphic designers (rather than a typical business audience), your listeners are more likely to enjoy and share an offbeat acronym, like CRAP. (That stands for 4 principles of graphic design: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity.)
- Another quirky graphic-design acronym (reminiscent of CRAP) is ROT, which stands for Rule Of Thirds.
It helps to make it emotive, witty, or fitting
T – TinyScroll up to Contents ↑
By making your acronym tiny (or in other words, short), you make it:
- more memorable
- more shareable
- easier to say frequently (and for your audience to hear).
The key factor is how many syllables you save
Especially when it comes to being easy to say (and hear), the key factor is how many syllables you save by saying your acronym (rather than having to say what it stands for each time).
For instance, PACE uses just 1 syllable to represent 16 syllables:
- Personal (3 syllables)
- Actionable (4 syllables)
- Conversational (5 syllables)
- Emotional (4 syllables)
So when presenting about PACE, being so tiny means it’s far easier to say frequently (and for people to hear) than the 16 syllables it represents.
Being tiny’s a great benefit compared to any of your stories
And, being tiny’s a great benefit compared to any of your stories – especially when you want to share your message on social media or promotional merchandise (like badges or banners).
Another benefit of making your acronym short is it’ll be more forceful, with more emotional weight than a longer word. (After all, that’s why most swear words are so short!)
Just how tiny should your acronym be? Well, in terms of syllables, having literally just 1 or 2 is ideal. And having 3 letters is ideal too (like TED or Aim), because then it conforms to the Rule of 3, which means people will find it catchy and easiest to remember.
The more letters it has, the harder it’ll be for people to remember
You can certainly make it longer than that if you need to. Just bear in mind that the more letters it has, the harder it’ll be for people to remember. So:
- 4 letters are still fine (like PACE).
- 5 letters are a bit harder to recall (like FiRST).
- 6 letters are starting to get tough (like ASPECT).
(That’s yet another reason why SUCCES from Made to Stick isn’t a great example to follow!)
Any longer than that (that is, with 7 or more letters) and it becomes like a “laundry list”, meaning people will struggle to remember what each letter stands for.
Cautions for using acronymsScroll up to Contents ↑
- Don’t go crazy!
- Still use stories (and other means)
Use acronyms in moderation
Despite all the benefits, use acronyms in moderation – like any part of your speaking toolbox. So I suggest you use one for either your core message or your call-to-action. And in any talk, include at most 2 new acronyms – or preferably, just 1.
Mind you, if people already know an acronym, it’s fine to use it freely. For instance, most people take the acronym TED for granted, and many won’t even care what it means.
Stories are still the mainstay of public speaking
I’m also not suggesting you stop using stories (and examples, metaphors, etc). Stories are still the mainstay of public speaking. I’m simply saying that acronyms are another superb tool you can use in ways you simply can’t use stories.
Closing thoughtsScroll up to Contents ↑
You could liken giving a talk to lighting a fire. In that analogy, using an acronym’s like striking a match to ignite the kindling, and telling a story’s like putting logs on the fire. For a successful result, you need both.
So I highly recommend you have plenty of stories, examples and metaphors in your speaking toolbox, as well as a few choice (and MOIST) acronyms!
Your turnScroll up to Contents ↑
What are some memorable or favourite acronyms you’ve heard, or use yourself?
Let me know in the comments.
Examples – public-speaking acronyms from other writersScroll up to Contents ↑
- Create a S.T.A.R. moment, by Nancy Duarte
- Start your presentation with PUNCH, by Garr Reynolds
- 4 secrets to the best images for your slides (BARE), by Ellen Finkelstein
- Why you need to SLAP your audience to be memorable, by Hugh Culver
- Make your next audience T.A.L.L., by Craig Valentine
- TEASE ’em: 5 ways to start your speech, by Peter Jeff
(published on Andrew Dlugan’s Six Minutes blog)
See also (Including people’s advice against using acronyms!)Scroll up to Contents ↑
- For a completely different viewpoint, see the discussion of all that’s wrong with acronyms – Nick Morgan’s post called What’s wrong with acronyms?
- For advice about using industry acronyms, and the problems they can introduce, see John Zimmer’s post called Acronyms can seriously suck
- 12+ ways to be remembered when you present (F!RST framework – part 3)
- 5 ways to be a top presenter – meet the F!RST framework
- Intrigue people (F!RST framework – part 1i)
- Answer people’s key question (F!RST framework – part 1A)
- Today’s most popular posts, and the latest visitor comments
I’ve seen a lot of people “force” things by making nonessential words one of the letters. For example: instead of P for passion, they happen to need an “E” to make some word they want, so they go “E” stands for “Elicit passion”. Something like that.
Another question: what if multiple speakers use acronyms? Since so many letters get reused, you’ll get C being used for “concrete” by one, “convincing” by another, and “cry” by another… Would this end up diminishing the power of acronyms?
Thanks for another great post Craig!!!
Thanks for commenting, and those are both good points to discuss.
On the 1st issue, there’s often a trade-off where an acronym’s 5 MOIST benefits come at a cost, like needing to include non-essential words. And it’s always a judgement call to decide whether that trade-off’s worth it.
In fact I’ve a related situation in FiRST, where the R stands for Remembered and the T stands for Talked about. So to make each of those into actions, I need other words before them (“Be Remembered” and “Get Talked about”). That’s not ideal, but I think the acronym’s benefits are worth it. (Some other people – notably Nick Morgan – might well disagree!)
On the 2nd issue, I don’t think multiple speakers reusing the same letters to mean different things is a problem. But if the same speaker used multiple acronyms in a single talk, it could certainly confuse people.
I don’t think that applies to the FiRST framework, because each letter in the acronym does stand for the most crucial word (focus, remembered, talked about, etc.).
On your use of SUCCES as a non-ideal case, I actually like it a lot, although I’ve read the book twice and still can’t remember all of them (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete? C… Emotional, and Story)… this illustrates well the issue of using the same letter twice or more
With SUCCES, can you pinpoint why you like it? The content it stands for is excellent, but as an acronym, I think it’s pretty shocking (because it breaks 4 of the guidelines above – especially being misspelt and repeating two of its letters).
So I wonder if it’s the underlying content you like, rather than the questionable acronym itself?
I found it neat that they could arrange 6 items into – almost – the word SUCCES, and that it helped me remember a majority of the principles, which is more than I can say for 90% of the books I’ve read. So I suppose it’s surprising, given the shortcomings of the acronym, that it worked with me 🙂
Thanks for letting me know. I guess that speaks to the power of acronyms.
I know I’m being picky, but I just wish they’d come up with a stronger acronym. For instance, here’s my attempt – STICKY – which stands for:
With a strong acronym, the content would be even easier to remember, so I think they missed an opportunity there.
(Somehow I couldn’t respond to your comment, only to mine) STICKY would be stronger than SUCCES indeed, although to me “intense” and “kooky” don’t come close enough to the original words and their meaning, and I didn’t know “yarns” also meant stories! But I agree with your general point – STICKY would definitely be stronger. I played around with the words but couldn’t come up with something better than your attempt (I tried moving stories to T for “tales”, credible to I for “indisputable”)
Thanks for having a go. Because SUCCES is misspelt, I wanted to use a 6-letter word instead – so STICKY was an obvious choice.
Maybe someone who’s a whizz at crosswords could come up with a 6-letter acronym that works better than both SUCCES and STICKY. (There’s a challenge for all the readers out there!)
Hi, Craig — like Nick, I am a little suspicious of acronyms, especially ones that feel forced or when the tone or meaning of what’s spelled out doesn’t match the principles of what it’s trying to convey. That said, I agree that they should be simple. Lot of great information here — I went down a rabbit-hole of really useful content clicking on all the links!
Thanks for commenting, Rob, and I’m glad you found the links useful.
I agree that if an acronym feels forced, it can be off-putting. So there’s definitely a “dark side” to some acronyms!
When it comes to tone or meaning, I’m happy as long as:
So for instance MOIST appeals to me because it’s not offensive, and it doesn’t contradict the message. What’s more, because the word’s nothing to do with the content, people’ll wonder what the connection is, which makes it more memorable and intriguing. That’s my take on it, anyway!