We all know some acronyms off by heart.

Maybe it’s a catchy phrase you learned in school. Or maybe it’s a set of letters you learned to associate with something else.

Business schools, personal development conferences and all kinds of workshops are replete with acronym after acronym. The leaders of these courses promulgate rehashed versions of topical acronyms or their own ones with the aim of capturing some aspect of reality to teach you.

The problem is most acronyms are flawed.

Acronyms seem useful on paper. A pithy word or set of letters that points to information that we can use or remember.

But they are not as useful as they appear. Let me show you why.

The problem with acronyms

Let me be clear, when I say acronyms are flawed, I’m referring to acronyms that attempt to encapsulate information (usually business, self-help or personal development-related) into some kind of proprietary framework.

Acronyms that act as quick shortcuts for already established names, companies, associations and the like are helpful.

Benelux’ is a useful acronym for the grouping of countries Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg and ‘GIF’ makes it easier to understand (and share) images in the format without saying ‘Graphics Interchange Format’ all the time. This is because these are concrete things with already established terms and the acronyms almost act as abbreviations to speed up what we’re talking about.

The problem with business and self-help oriented acronyms is that they rarely point to information as concrete as those above. The creators of such acronyms want to believe that their’s is a foolproof, objective indexing of some aspect of reality like an economic union or file format. But this usually isn’t the case.

Take the infamous ‘4Ps’ of marketing as an example. ‘PPPP’ stands for ‘Product, ‘Price’, ‘Place’, and ‘Promotion’. This acronym was conceived in the 1960s as a way of summarising the ‘marketing mix’ in business.

The acronym gets one thing right—it’s easy to remember.

But does it summarise what there is to know about marketing?

I’m no marketing expert. But I know that most professional marketers and business owners wouldn’t disagree at the suggestion of adding another ‘P’ to the mix: ‘People’. This ‘P’ can refer to the demographic you’re marketing to and the nuances required to target it correctly.

So it’s only a matter of changing the acronym right? ‘5Ps’ still rolls off the tongue and maintains its ease of memorisation.

Yet herein lies the issue. The original acronym that purported to capture the be all and end all of marketing failed to do so. A modern marketer who remains open-minded to other marketing concepts such as taking into account ‘People’ will likely thrive better in the long run.

Such acronyms aren’t future proof. At some point in the future, the world they try to wrap in a framework changes and the original set of letters becomes a jigsaw missing pieces or outdated and obsolete.

With the marketing acronym, whose to say there can’t be a sixth ‘P’ or more obvious still, important marketing concepts that don’t begin with that letter? It’d be foolish to omit a concept from an acronym because it inconveniences how well the acronym rolls off the tongue. Just because it sounds snappy doesn’t make it an unbreakable rule.

Acronyms Jigsaw

How to make a good acronym

Recall I didn’t say all acronyms are flawed, just that most are.

There are examples of fantastic acronyms that don’t pretend to point to an absolute rule but get the balance between memorability and pragmatism right.

‘DR ABC’ is one of the best acronyms I ever learned. It’s taught in first aid courses in the UK as an immediate response protocol.

DR ABC’ stands for ‘Danger’, ‘Response’, ‘Airway’, ‘Breathing’ and ‘Circulation’. This is the order in which a first aider should assess an emergency situation with a person involved.

Many years later since taking a first aid course, I still remember the acronym and its components. No doubt it has saved countless lives.

The ‘DR ABC’ acronym succeeds where others fail because the letters represent words that have been validated as part of decision-making pathway that calls for pragmatic action. Whilst not absolute in the way a hard scientific principle is, the ordering of the acronym will stand the test of time as those in a critical condition will need prioritisation of removal of threats to their health in that order.

Moreover, despite being catchy and memorable, the acronym hasn’t forced a word with a particular initial just to be catchy. In this example, that would compromise the optimal healthcare response for those in dire need. The letters represent concepts that are important but fit the bill of being easy to remember.

Another example of a useful acronym is ‘FAST’, an acronym that represents the key signs of someone having a stroke. Like the first aid acronym above, this one is reliably future-proofed (general stroke symptoms are well documented and are unlikely to change) and the letters are arranged in a memorable order without being ‘forced in’ for convenience.

These brilliant examples demonstrate the keys behind good acronyms:

-> Future-proofed: Ensure the individual components of an acronym will stand the test of time. An acronym doesn’t have to be scientifically rigid but the components should point to truths that will be just as valid in the long future as they are now.

-> Mnemonic: Ideally an acronym is memorable for ease of recall. The easiest way to achieve this is to form the letters in a catchy word or phrase (e.g. ‘DR ABC’ or ‘SMART’) and not just a random bundle of letters.

-> Fit the acronym to reality, not the other way around: Avoid including or omitting a component simply because it would make the acronym neater or catchier to say. In science, this is an example of confirmation bias and renders the validity of a theory false.

Acronyms Yolo


Acronyms are commonplace in an Information Age that champions new ideas and knowledge with the aim of trying to reveal some undiscovered aspect of reality.

The problem is most acronyms don’t point to some new working of the universe. If you’re not careful, you risk following a narrow conception of the topic it handles. This might not sound like a big deal but enormous sums of money are spent on so-called ‘proprietary knowledge’ from business gurus and self-help coaches. Much of this proprietary knowledge is centred around such acronyms so it’s important to be aware of what’s legit and what isn’t.

This article has revealed what to look out for when you see a new acronym so that you have the ability to assess its worth and applicability.

Here’s a summary of what to look out for:

-> Bad acronyms tend to be in the fields of business, marketing, self-help and related areas. This is because the gurus in these domains can propose their own ‘proprietary knowledge’ with little vetting from an expert peer group the way that the hard sciences have built into their protocols.

Bad acronyms:

-> Include or omit components to make the acronym neater or catchier i.e. bad science.

-> Are focused on current trends to take advantage of buzz rather than principles that will stand the test of time.

-> Have an overly-narrow conception of the topic they deal with and are unadaptable.

Good acronyms:

-> Are practical heuristics.

-> Are memorable, usually in mnemonic form.

-> Are future-proofed since their components stand the test of time.

-> Fit the acronym to how reality is instead of committing ‘bad science’ by attempting to fit reality within the letters of the acronym.

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