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That acronym doesn't work for me: A consultant's confession

Paul Hellman, founder Express Potential
Tuesday, 13 Aug 2013 | 2:11 PM ET
Satellite image of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
Planet Observer | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
Satellite image of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.

The other day, I came across the acronym "HOMES," which is supposed to help you remember the five Great Lakes.

I'd completely forgotten about "HOMES." (Think Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.) The truth is, I don't think about the Great Lakes as often as I should—they're obviously important, why else did we memorize them?

But even after I saw "HOMES," I still couldn't name them all. I decided to do some research.

"Can you name the Great Lakes?" I asked my wife.

She proceeded to rattle off all five.

"How'd you do that?" I asked.

"Simple," she said. "HOMES."

Clearly, some acronyms work for some people.

My problem with "HOMES" is that it's got nothing to do with lakes, unless your home is completely flooded—"Let's get out of here, honey, all the rooms are like lakes!"—or you happen to live in a houseboat.

An acronym for the Great Lakes should be relevant, like "water,"or "drown." Either one would work just fine, we'd simply have to rename most of the lakes to fit.

That's the thing about acronyms, they're often a force fit.

My favorite business acronym, "smart," spells out five criteria for effective goal-setting. (Be specific, measurable, attainable/achievable, realistic and time-bound.)

No force fit there. "Smart goals" sound right and are used everywhere (although the criteria vary across organizations; e.g. the "a" in smart can mean attainable, agreed-upon or awesome).

MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, works, despite the misspelling. MADD is emotional, which makes it memorable, and the emotion fits the crime.

I also have a soft spot for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are "creative acronyms"—nicknames really—that sound less like mortgage agencies and more like a pleasant couple you'd meet at a square dance. Perhaps near the Great Lakes.

But in general, the world is cluttered with acronyms. More than 5 million, according toacronymfinder.com. Pick up any business book, you're bound to run into some bad ones.

I've created a few iffy ones myself. If you're a consultant (as I am), there's a law, I believe, that requires you to.

Let's say you wanted to build a consulting practice around eliminating acronyms. You'd probably end up creating one, anyway, despite yourself—why not "eat" (end acronymstoday)?—and then you'd turn that into a book: "Eat! The Shocking, 30-Day Diet to a Slimmer, Less Annoying Verbal You."

Well, you get the point. Use acronyms sparingly. Not everyone loves them, and some people, when they hear one, just don't feel at home.

—Paul Hellman of Express Potential is a consultant, author and speaker.

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