What’s in a name: the what, why, and how of the name game for networking, personal branding, and building relationships

namegame

As a result of growing up with an unusual name all my life, I’ve become very interested in and sensitive to names. I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out the perfect names for my two boys. And when I launched my business nine years ago, I went through a lot of name candidates before landing on TalentGrow.

When I teach my clients about networking, personal branding, communicating, and connecting meaningfully with others, the subject of names comes up often. Many, if not most, people I work with admit they have a hard time remembering names. Some people think it’s just the way it is, and some people feel ill-at-ease about it.

They ask me: How important is it to make sure your name is memorable? How important is it to say people’s name right and remember it after meeting them?

Shakespeare wrote, “what’s in a name?” and some people think it’s not that big of a deal, but I disagree.

Names are really important to people. They want to see you making an effort to learn their name, say it right, and remember it.

As Dale Carnegie famously wrote in his classic, How to Win Friends & Influence People, “a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Here’s a brief summary of the “what”, “why”, and “how” of the name-game: what is wrapped up in names, why you should make an effort around names, and how to help others learn yours as well as how to learn and remember other people’s names more easily.

What’s in a name?

Your name is part of your personal brand. In addition to how you dress and groom, how you introduce yourself is one of the very first impressions you create. Your name forms a major part of your personal brand, and how you tell others your name is a separate and equally important part of that picture. Of course, you cannot control the name your parents gave you, or that you gained by marriage. But you can provide others with a clear enunciation of your name, alternatives or nicknames, or helpful mnemonic mechanisms so they can be successful saying and remembering it. (See my tips on this in the ‘How’ section.)

Others’ name is an inseparable part of their identity. Getting it right helps you forge a deeper connection with them. Become a curious student of names (more on that in the next section on ‘Why’). I can certainly tell you that having always been the one who stumps those I meet with my odd name, I am keenly observant of their reaction to my name and very sensitive to assessing their attitude toward it. Do their eyes glaze over? Do they suddenly lose interest in talking to me? Are they completely stymied and hopeless about learning it? Do they immediately ask for a ‘way out’ by requesting a nickname or do they make an effort to slug through the challenge of saying it right? How you react to others’ names says a lot about you.

Why make an effort around names

Part of the way you let others in on your character and begin to gain their trust and respect is to let them know that you care about them as a person and are interested in knowing them. When you show up as obviously interested in learning their names, people will naturally feel more connected with you and even want to reciprocate your effort and interest. Even if you say their name wrong, or admit to having forgotten their name in a humble way, your concern for knowing their name will shine through and they will forgive you and help you out. So forget about feeling embarrassed or nervous about getting their name wrong – you do much more damage to trust by not trying at all than by trying and failing. In this case, effort > outcome.

How to help others learn your name

Showing empathy for the other person’s task of learning your name and allowing them to be more successful in both saying it and remembering it is a great way to build your own personal brand and making others connect with you more easily and willingly. Here are some tips on how.

  • Pace, pause, and repeat. When introducing yourself, say your name slowly and enunciate it clearly to allow others to grasp it fully. If your first and last name create an unintended ‘cocktail’, pause between them (my friend Kay Lybrand does this so that others don’t hear her name as “Kayla Brand”). If you have an unusual name, you may want to repeat it (with a pause in between the first and second utterances), knowing that the first time might have had the effect of a virtual smack on the forehead and then flew right over their head, and the second time might ‘land’.
  • First and last or just first? If you have a common name, always give your first and last name to make yourself more memorable and unique. “I’m Jen” or “I’m John” might be a line they hear several times that evening, but “I’m Jen Brodsky” or “I’m John Norman” may be much more singular and help set you apart. If you have an unusual name like me and your first name is already a ‘mouthful’, consider giving only your first name and saving your last name for later. Let’s face it, no one will ever say, “Halelly Who?”, anyway…
  • Give helpful tips and extras. If your name is common, consider providing an extra piece of information, an alliterative element, or a rhyme or metaphor to help make it more unique and memorable. For example, if your name is Bruce, say “I’m Bruce but I don’t know karate” or “I’m Bruce from Baltimore”. If you’ve got an unusual spelling or a name that’s different, give spelling or pronunciation tips. For example, say “I’m Caitlyn with a C and a Y” or “I’m Halelly, it rhymes with Kelly.” You could even provide visual or audio aids on your name tent or name badge or even on your LinkedIn profile or bio. One woman in one of my workshops wrote her name phonetically on her card because it was often overwhelming to people (it was a multi-syllabic Malaysian name). I’ve recently added both phonetic and linguistic visual guides as well as an audio recording of my name’s pronunciation on my ‘About’ page and LinkedIn profile.
  • If your name has unintended and unwanted double-entendres or meaning (especially if it is a non-native name in the current culture), you may want to consider using a nickname or slightly modifying it to remove the unwanted consequences. For example, my husband’s name is David but in our native culture he always used the very common nickname of Dudie. As you might imagine, Dudie (sounds like doodee) draws giggles out of even the most well-intentioned mature adults, so in the U.S. he only goes by David. Problem solved. On the other hand, if you’re like me and your name is just different and maybe difficult but doesn’t have any unwanted rhymes or meanings, you may want to stick with the helpful mnemonics and forgo using the more extreme tactic of using a nickname (as I do).

How to learn and remember others’ names

As mentioned above, making it clear you’re interested in learning others’ names makes you a person others want to know and connect with. Here are some tips to make learning and remembering names a bit less daunting.

  • Set an intention. You must make it a mindful practice to be successful. Set a mental intention that you want to learn and remember the names of people you meet. This is especially useful when you are heading into a meeting or a networking event where you’ll be meeting a lot of people. I find that because so many people have not succeeded in the past, they actually do the opposite (subconsciously, of course): they tell themselves in advance that they cannot remember names, thereby actually setting themselves up for a self-fulfilling-prophecy kind of failure!
  • Repeat. You’re heard this before, but listen: it helps! Make it your goal to repeat the name as soon as it’s given to ensure you’re gotten it correctly (or receive a helpful correction) and then at least a couple more times in the conversation. Repetition helps embed information to memory.
  • Imagine a mnemonic device when none is offered. In the section above, I suggested you provide this helpful tip or mnemonic device to others’ learning your name, but not everyone you meet will have read this post or learned this suggestion. So, if they don’t offer one up, try to imagine an alliteration, or rhyme, or associative mnemonic in your mind to help you embed a way to remember their name (such as “Brian from Baltimore”, etc.).
  • Seek a visual aid. Research shows we’re much more likely to remember information when we both hear and see it, so look for a visual aid. Look for the person’s name written on their name badge, name tent, or business card. Or if those are not available, ask them to spell it and envision their name in your mind’s eye as written out. Your brain will help you out when it gets both left- and right-brain hemisphere data.
  • When in doubt, ask. So many of us are afraid to admit that we don’t know how to say someone’s name, or that we’ve tried to remember but forgot. As I said, you actually get more ‘relationship credit points’ for showing humility than for showing disinterest or avoidance. Don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat their name, or to ask them to remind you of it. It shows you care.

In summary, people care a lot about their own names and you should care about yours and theirs. By following these tips for both helping others get your name right and you getting theirs, you’ll increase trust, create better connections, and build better relationships with others with greater ease.

Do you have a story about a time when you struggled with this? Or do you have a helpful tip or trick for helping others get your name right or for learning and remembering others’ names? Share them in the comments below, I’d love to hear it!

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