What’s in a name?

You may have seen the Simon Sinek video from last year, likening leadership to love (Simon Sinek about Love, Relationships & Leadership).  In the video Simon describes that like love, leadership is not typically defined by one act; it’s a compound of the many small actions, words and thoughts.  Individually, those acts might be trivial, but together they make something amazing.

It’s a great way to think about leadership and made me think of my experiences learning and using a peoples’ names.

Back in February 2011, when working as a hosting manager for Outsourcery, I went to the Parallels (now Odin) summit in Orlando, Florida.  On one day, walking around the conference venue, I bumped into Birger Steen, then CEO of Parallels: “Hi Stephen, how are you finding the conference?” he said.  I had met Birger only once and very briefly before that point – at another event in London 2 months before.  I certainly didn’t expect him to recall me and the experience stuck with me.  I’ve seen it the other way around, when someone I’ve met briefly is surprised that I remember who they are, and the impact – just like when it happened to me – is a good step in trust and credibility.

This experience (and the opposite of someone forgetting our name) is rooted deep in our psychology.  Your name is likely to be the first, and most common word that you have ever heard, and there are studies showing how your brain reacts differently when you hear your name:

“Our brains involuntarily respond to the sound of our own names, even in a state in which we are unable to respond to or act on anything else” 


This means it’s important to not only remember someone’s name, but also to learn its correct pronunciation.  Since my chance meeting with Birger in 2011, I’ve tried to do better at both, and here are a few of the methods that I use.

If you’re meeting someone face to face for the first time

  • Actively listen when they introduce themselves
  • Repeat the name back to the person to confirm (this helps memory already)
  • If a complex or unusual name, don’t be afraid to ask more than once!
  • Concentrate on the pronunciation, and check if unsure
  • If possible (without being seen!), write the name down
  • If you can link the name to an image or something memorable, do that. This is a well-known memory technique, and abstract thoughts work too.  Some examples:
    • I play tennis with someone called Jane. She herself encouraged me to think ‘Tarzan’.
    • For me you could imagine a chicken on a flight of stairs: Step-hen
  • If you ever forget, apologise and ask again (I’ve often found people use that moment to ask me if they’ve forgotten mine).

If you’re meeting people in a meeting / workshop

  • Draw a quick diagram of the room and put the names in the locations. (This activates a different part of your brain, so you have more chance of remembering.)
  • Use cues from other people if you are missing a name
  • Test yourself! I quite like to draw the room diagram a second time from memory

If you’re emailing or messaging other people

  • Check to see if you’re getting the name right. What does their email signature say?  On LinkedIn?
  • If it’s unclear, ask what a person prefers when you have an opportunity


The Brain on Your Name: How Your Brain Responds to the Sound of Your Name  NameCoach

Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others’ Names  Research by Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis

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