The Born Freelancer on Getting Names Right

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.bornfreel2

Names possess almost magical power unlike any other words.

Used correctly, they can help foster confidence, trust, empathy and credibility. 

Incorrect use can be catastrophic. 

Remembering and getting names right is a necessary facility for any professional freelancer.

When to get it right

The simple answer is, always! 

People are very invested in their own name. They like to hear it. The more you can use their name appropriately in conversation the better for you. It’s such a simple thing but how many of us claim to be “bad” at names? Get over it. There is no point in making this business harder than it already is.

Remembering and correctly using someone’s name won’t help you if you lack talent and minimal social graces. But for the rest of us it’s a useful ability, especially when establishing new contacts.

First names should be exchanged, I think, amongst individuals engaged in casual conversation for more than a few minutes. (It says, in effect, I like you and respect you and I ask the same from you). Too early and it seems presumptuous. Too late and it seems embarrassing to ask. 

Some people find asking for a name hard to do at any time. In which case, offer yours first. “By the way, my name is Devon.” Most people will readily offer theirs in return. Adding surnames and contact info to the mix when appropriate (if it is clear from the conversation that such information will be useful) should follow at the conclusion of any conversation. 

Casual encounters

In casual social events, catching and remembering people’s names can be tough but invaluable for the freelancer. How many people have I met socially who I wanted to keep in touch with professionally? Being able to remember a name, and being able to connect that name with their face forever thereafter are invaluable skills in developing your networks. 

In the immediate situation, remembering and using a name can ease the awkwardness of initial social contact. “Alex, what do you think about that?” is slightly more likely to gain you attention from “Alex” than not using his name at all. People generally respond favorably when they hear their own name.

Later when you run into “Alex” again at the film festival or in a corporate cafeteria, being able to recall and instantly use his name may be the password to buying you enough time to make your best “elevator pitch”.

In a meeting

In meetings with unknown potential employers, it is critical to get their names right as quickly as possible and use them naturally when you can. If this is a one-on-one you must be able to do this without cribs. But if you are in a meeting with several individuals I have always found it easier to brazenly open a notebook in front of everyone. As I learn their names I write them down, glancing at them only occasionally during the meeting as I make casual notes.

I’ve never had anyone object to me using such an obvious crib. In fact, my ability to use everyone’s names (although never referred to directly) often got me complimented afterwards on how well I had handled a meeting. I know my use of their names throughout the meeting – in a casual, seemingly random manner – was an important asset in achieving a cordial atmosphere.

Helpful tricks

Using your smartphone or exchanging business cards are easy ways to accurately keep track of everyone’s name who might have a place in your professional network. While not everyone carries cards I am finding their use occurring more frequently again amongst younger freelancers who are rediscovering their cost-effective power. (I’ve written about them elsewhere on this site.) 

Repeating a new acquaintance’s name to get it right in your head and then later taking a moment to make a note to yourself can be another useful technique. For more visual learners, asking how to spell an unusual name may help you remember it. (This backfires, of course, when they reply “Oh just the usual way” and you’ve already forgotten it.) Some use mnemonic tricks to help their memory. Whatever works for you – use it! 

Getting work

Sending pitches or resumes must always go to a name. The right name, correctly spelled. Sending it to the title of the job of the person you want it to reach will almost certainly get it ignored. How do you find out the name of the person you need to send it to? And the right spelling? Time spent on research is never wasted.

Same rule applies to making cold calls. Find out ahead of time who it is you need to reach. Then ask for the individual by name. (Just make sure you are using the right pronunciation). It might help you to get through. And once into your cold call, try to use their name but only when it seems natural. You are trying to create some kind of immediate connection under almost impossible circumstances.

Got work?

It should go without saying that getting names right in our actual body of work is a must. But it’s so important I’m going to say it anyway. 

Names matter. 

I once read an article in a national publication about a public figure which got the spelling wrong of his name every time! Some folk might not have cared, although according to the responses that followed many readers definitely did.

Call it unfair if you like but every time I read the name (spelled incorrectly) I wondered to myself, what else had they got wrong? How poorly researched was the article? Should I believe anything it says? In short, the spelling error undermined the credibility of the entire piece. I don’t know whose responsibility it was (it should have been caught by someone within the editorial process) but the result was nothing less than a professional embarrassment. 

Names matter.

In today’s world of fewer (or no) fact checkers and proof-readers we freelancers have to insure every name we use is right. 

The takeaway

I’d like to leave you with a memorable story from early in my career which taught me something of the strategic value of using names to help make a name in the media. 

Years ago I helped to produce a widely syndicated radio feature. These were recorded interviews with public figures of the day. They needed considerable editing. The new on-air interviewer was unskilled but confident and came up with some remarkable guests to be interviewed. They were always frequently referred to by their first name by the interviewer in the recorded conversations.

When I commented on this, the interviewer explained that they hoped their guests’ public stature would reflect back favourably upon them. Success by association. The trick, as they saw it, was to create an instant illusion of intimacy and rapport and mutual respect. Hence, the frequent use of first names. Furthermore, every time a guest would use the interviewer’s first name (which they did much less frequently) in a segment that was to be edited out, I was asked to insert that clip elsewhere in one of the segments that did air. This way, the interviewer’s name would feature at least as prominently as their guest’s – occasionally even more so. 

To be honest, at the time, I thought it unnecessary work to appease the ego of an unrepentant narcissist. 


That interviewer went on to a successful career pretty much based upon the skillfully-contrived vibe evoked by their name. 

In retrospect, it’s clear to me that very early on they knew precisely the power of repeatedly getting the right name as well as getting the name right – both their subjects’ and their own.

It’s a somewhat vexatious lesson I have never forgotten.

Want to suggest a future topic or respond to the author directly? Contact: thebornfreelancer AT

Have any special tricks you use to remember names? Feel free to tell us in the comments section below.

Posted on September 6, 2017 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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