Ironically, of all the topics I teach in the world of leadership communication and influence, the single most common thing people STILL want to talk to me about when we meet is how to say their names so others will understand it and be able to pronounce it correctly. It was an example I used in my TEDxPenn talk back in 2013, “Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right,” and 6,000,000 views later, well, apparently the problem isn't solved just yet!
The issue was recently raised again by Ruchika Tulshyan, in her recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “If You Don't Know How to Say Someone's Name, Just Ask,” focusing on it from the angle of someone whose name is regularly mispronounced, and why that can be not only frustrating and insulting, but potentially even detrimental to one's career.
But whether or not you have a Western name, the way most people introduce themselves makes it unnecessarily hard for the listener to understand and remember, so if your name is unusual in any way, that just compounds the problem.
Beyond what I discussed in my TED talk, there are simple steps you can take to help others understand and remember (and thereby be able to correctly pronounce) your name.
How to Help Others Pronounce Your Name Right
- SLOW DOWN! (A LOT!) Most people ZOOM through their name so quickly that the listener couldn't possibly catch it. And if you keep talking, they may not know how to interrupt you to ask you to repeat it.
- SPEAK UP. Especially if you're in a crowded space like a networking event or conference, you need to ensure they can hear what you're saying; just because YOU hear yourself, it doesn't mean THEY can.
- ENUNCIATE. This goes hand in hand with speed in part, but don't mumble and expect others to be able to decipher it.
- Orally SEPARATE your first from last name(s). Put a space/pause between the names so they don't run together into one continuous stream of sound. Especially if it's a “foreign” sounding name (goes for anyone speaking any language to a listener who speaks a different language), the listener may genuinely not know where your first name should end and last name begins.
- If the SPELLING of your name doesn't match what the listener would expect it to sound like (such as on a name tag at a networking event or in a bio someone's going to read aloud when introducing you,) proactively write in a cue and/or explicitly state to the listener: “My name doesn't look like it sounds. It's spelled ____, but it's actually pronounced ___.” If what people see doesn't match what they hear, they will naturally assume that they misheard, and rely on the text in front of them. After all, seeing is believing, right?
Separating Motivational Errors from Ability Errors
In another useful article, Gerardo Ochoa shared his experiences with people butchering his name, and offers some good suggestions on how to correct people. But neither Mr. Ochoa's piece nor Ms. Tulshyan's piece addressed one factor that can be fodder for misunderstanding that can negatively impact relationships: ABILITY.
As a linguist and foreign language instructor for many years, I can tell you that pronunciation is by far the most challenging aspect of any language. Some people have a very “musical ear” and can recognize and produce all sorts of sounds, and others have a “tin ear,” and no matter how hard they try, simply can't hear the difference between what they say and what you're saying. Alternatively, they may be able to hear the difference, but have absolutely no idea how to make the sounds that you're making.
As such, I want to offer one more important strategy for helping your listener be able to call you by name in a way that makes you feel respected in the process:
- Practice PRONUNCIATION EMPATHY. Be mindful of certain sounds that may be unique to your native language if it's a language the listener is unfamiliar with. These are like auditory potholes in the road that can stymie the listener's understanding and potentially be impossible for them to repeat. For example, maybe your name is “Roberto” and you naturally roll your R's in Spanish but the listener is unfamiliar with that sound and unable to produce it. Or if your name is Liu, and in Mandarin it requires use of the “second tone,” your average English speaker probably won't even perceive much less realize is relevant, even if they are trying to say it right.
As a result, while it's certainly understandable to want to honor your native language and culture and maintaining the native pronunciation, there may be times when you'll need to meet the other person half way, so to speak, because they're simply unable to meet you all the way otherwise.
If you forget everything else, remember rule #1: SLOW DOWN — A LOT! You'll be amazed at the difference it makes!
Here’s to your success!
PS: Do you feel frustrated that people don’t understand what you’re trying to say, in a way that negatively affects your ability to have more influence? Set up a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me here.