GovSpeak is a Real Thing!


Did you know that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a 78 page document called the FEMA Acronyms, Abbreviations & Terms (FAAT) List. The University of California, San Diego Library hosts a site dedicated to GovSpeak with a fully linked list to U.S. government agency, office, program and publication acronyms. GovSpeak is a real thing that we use more and more every day but it may not be helping our communication with people outside government, i.e. our customers.

Not only is GovSpeak a real thing, it depends on the context, agency and situation as to what an acronym may actually mean. For example, from the FEMA document, ASP has four different meanings:

  1. Active Server Page
  2. Advanced Spectroscopic Portal
  3. Associate Safety Professional
  4. Aviation Security Program

Outside of government, ASP could be an Asp (a type of snake) or one of 192 other meaning including the Association of Surfing Professionals, the American School of Paris and the Arkansas State Parks. Imagine the confusion if one definition is used instead another.

This quick demonstration indicates what we are up against when we are trying to explain aspects of our govie roles to non-govies. I do a lot of work with the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and often find myself having to communicate highly technical information out to homeowners, business owners, realtors and insurance agents. If I don’t pay close attention to how I present my message, my message will not be heard.

Don’t worry – I’m not suggesting you remove all GovSpeak from your vocabulary. That wouldn’t be practical. I just think that we should think of our audience when we are discussing a topic to make sure we don’t confuse the issue. These are some of the things I think about when preparing any communication with non-govies.

  • Betty White can help. When I’m putting a presentation together, or writing an article I ask myself “would Rose (referring to Betty White’s character in the fabulous Golden Girls) understand what I am talking about?” We all have our “Rose” and if they can understand what you are saying, you are on the right track.
  • Audience participation. Yes, this is the thing that scares most of us at a comedy show but in the terms of government communication, asking a few questions at the beginning of your presentation is a good thing. This lets you know who you are dealing with and what their expected level of knowledge will be. You can then tailor the language to the audience.
  • Expect the know-it-all in the room. There will always be one (or more than one) person who thinks they know your topic better than you do. There is a temptation to start using more and more technical terms to combat them but this will be counterproductive to the rest of your group. Expecting that person, and use the tip above, to help identify them and manage them appropriately. You are in control of your communication.
  • Make fun of your use of acronyms. I do this in any discussion where I know I’m going to have to use some. Draw attention to it, use them as audience participation. Even think about a “Guess the Acronym” element. This will help get the audience past the GovSpeak and hopefully help them remember the important parts of your communication.

So GovSpeak is a real thing and definitely has a value. In today’s world our attention span is decreasing, we are used to seeing abbreviations and communication in 140 characters or less. GovSpeak fits nicely in with that and certainly has a great deal of value in our everyday work. We must, however, remember that not everyone speaks this language. We want our customers to be able to focus on what we are saying and not on translating our GovSpeak to English. So pay attention to this the next time you are communicating with a group outside your world, try a few of these tips. It will only help enhance your communication skills.

Claire Jubb is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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