A headline from the Gov UK website that's been twisted to focus on the COBR acronym.

Acronyms in headings

There’s lots of guidance about acronyms, but little about using acronyms in page / news titles on the intranet.

Acronyms can confuse and exclude people. Never a good thing for internal communications, the intranet, and a company culture.

But some acronyms can be easier to understand than the written out words. So all guidance must come with caveats and recognise exceptions.

There’s lots of guidance. We’re at the stage when communicators and writers of all kinds have to decide when to adopt, adapt, or reject the Readability Guidelines from Content London.

I provide training for intranet publishers who may not be part of the internal communications team, and yet are responsible for local or department news on a section of the intranet.

Right now, I’m thinking about acronyms. I’m also thinking about headlines / headings / titles. The guidance on each topic is clear, yet I’m unsure if any advice covers acronyms in headlines.

Two scenarios – unaccompanied headings, and accompanied

Here’s my thinking.

News on the intranet greatly benefits from clear headings and succinct summaries. You might call the ‘summary’ the ‘opening paragraph’ or the ‘excerpt’ or the ‘lede’ or ‘lead paragraph’. This summary is often literally the first paragraph of the article too, but not always (sometimes it’s independent, and not shown on the actual article).

No summary – unacommpanied headlines

I think when a news headline appears without a summary – just alone on the home page or landing page – then the use of acronyms must be carefully considered. Only common acronyms should be used in a lone heading. Anything technical, specialised, or uncommon will make little sense to a broad audiences, considering they only have the headline.

The problem here is the word ‘common’. There are always new staff members to consider, and whetever I think is common may not match what you think is common. We might agree on GPS and BBC, but are our assumptions enough?

Anyway, my point is, uncommon acronyms should not be in standalone headings. The heading should be written to express the topic so that people can judge if the article is relevant.

Headlines accompanied by a summary paragraph

I think when the headline is supported by a more detailed, longer summary sentence, the headline can use an acronym if that’s the best decision (considering comprehension, and length / word limits).

The summary paragraph can explain the acronym, either by stating it in full, or by merely expressing its meaning. I know that sounds vague, but while the guidance always suggests that we must write out acronyms in full, I’m only talking about the summary here and it could be possible to express the meaning using prose.

For instance, is the reader enlightened to learn that COBRA stands for ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room A’ or indeed that COBR now stands for ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms’? It might be that COBR is used in a headline, but the summary explains that it relates to ‘the Government’ and not some meeting spaces.

But summary descriptions often disappear…

As much as I love summary discriptions, they can fade away. What I mean is, while they show up under the heading on the intranet home page / a landing page, they may not show up in the news archive, and they may not show up in search results pages. This leaves the heading standing alone.

What do you think?

What works for you, within the realm of employee communications? How do you tackle this acronym + heading topic without just banning all abbreviations?

Have you found guidance that covers this already?

Please let me know in the comments, or via Twitter – I’m @Wedge.

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