The Culture Killer: I’m Bad With Names – Here’s the Easy Fix

Knowing people’s names is over 50% of our culture and personal engagement! I have a friend, Ryan Larson, who was receiving an award at a formal banquet. The president of the company stood on stage and read a list of Ryan’s accomplishments, and then summarized by saying, ”And it’s my distinct pleasure to recognize and bring on stage – Bryan Lawson!” We all clapped but no one moved. I leaned over to Ryan and said, ”Ryan, he means you.” The image of Ryan, smirking on stage next to the company president is burned in all our brains. That gaffe was laughed about decades later. The president looked silly and inept for years simply by mispronouncing Ryan’s name – totally embarrassing. I know the president was told of the faux pas and simply blew it off as no big deal. He said “they’ll get over it.” No apology, no heartfelt, “I’m sorry,” no explanation – he simply didn’t care and was stunned that anyone had even noticed. Really – C’mon man!

I have friends who have two daughters Marion and Melissa. I could never seem to remember which one was Melissa and which was Marion. I noticed that Marion is much taller than Melissa, and now every time I see them, I think Mountain Marion. I always call her Marion, while my other friends just say “hi.” It matters.

It sounds corny and stupid, Mountain Marion – but it is exactly right! That is the main point of how we build memory – we have to make it unique or it gets forgotten. Our brains don’t think in font or lines on a page – we think in pictures. The more bizarre the picture, the more memorable. My goal was to always know Marion’s name in order to be respectful. Make the memory as outlandish as possible and you’ll remember it! The person you are speaking with will definitely appreciate you knowing their name.

We all know how great it feels when someone remembers our name. In the neighborhood or at meetings, we forget names and say,  “Hey You,” or “What’s up Buddy,” or “Hey good to see you,” all generic and not personal. We even avoid people because we are embarrassed since we should know their name but can’t remember it. If we forget, as we all do, we should simply ask them again. We all like to tell people our names or be asked – it’s a good thing. And when they tell us again, this time really LISTEN!!!!!!! It’s also getting tougher to remember names in a global economy with many nationalities represented – the names are no longer simply Tom, Mary, and Bob.

Ok, here’s how we fix this!

1. Please stop saying – “I’m no good with names.” When we say that out loud or in our minds, we are simply wiring our nervous system to disengage from even trying. Or we are giving ourselves an easy out, to not even try,  or convince ourselves we’re like everybody else.  It’s not OK. We are killing teams, cultures, and the momentum of ideas, all because we don’t know people’s names.

2. When you hear a new name – pronounce it with the person a couple times – and spell it out in your mind or in the air. Visualize the name like it’s in a dictionary, so you can pronounce their name in the moment; it’s less about trying to get the spelling right. Visualize the names in your head like Ste-PHON,  Sha-KNEE-Sha, or An-TONY-io – spell it in your mind like clouds in the sky with 100 foot high pink cartoon letters – not New Times Roman 9 point font – make the visual you create in your mind memorable.

3. Say their name out loud 3 times within 20 seconds of hearing it. “Oh, so you are Janice,” “Janice it’s nice to meet you,” and “Janice, you said you are from where?” “Oh that’s interesting, Janice.” It sounds just fine to them since they like hearing their name. We are trying to wire our brain to remember.

4. As you hear or see the person, make a mental connection to someone else you know with that name.  I was at a convention recently, talking with a company representative named Scott. I learned his name during our first conversation and I immediately thought of Scott Carter, an old high school friend he resembled. When I saw him 2 days later I passed by him and said, “Hi, Scott.” He was gobsmacked that I knew his name. I was the customer and he had long forgotten my name. I enhanced my brand by knowing his name.

5. Learn the spouses name. In my past roles I had occasion to plan national meetings, and would invite award winners and they would bring their spouse. I would study, I mean really study, on the plane the attendee list, the spouses, the guest faces and names to get as familiar as possible with whom I was going to meet. Yes – it’s intentional.

“Recognition is most valuable based on the amount of time that someone puts into that recognition.”   

Poems handwritten, even with misspellings are always more valuable than roadside flowers bought on the way home. At the reception, I knew the employee and would say. “This must be Brenda.” The spouse would light up and they would tell others for years about someone knowing their name – this is how a culture is born. The employee also got huge positive splash-back, as the spouse thought I knew their name because the employee had mentioned their spouse to me.

6. Make your name memorable and easy for others to remember. I had a friend whose name I could never remember. Was it Katherine or Kathleen? And she reminded me, “Oh it’s easy- “I’m Katherine-The- Great!” The connection was made, it was memorable and since then I have always remembered her name. People introduce me as a speaker and ask, “How do I pronounce your last name?” I say “True-Nick, like False-Nick, True-Nick.” They always get it right.

Get the name right and we can build better cultures, better friendships, and lasting value.

Jim True-Nick

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