Winning the name game

Can anyone win the name game? You know the one I mean. You’re at an event and a friend introduces you to someone. Your friend lobs the name to you like a hanging curve ball, expecting you to hit it out of the park. Whiff! The name flits past you and the umpire rings you up. Another failed connection!

If you’ve experienced this, you’re in good company. Forgetting names is one of the three most common getting-to-know-you problems people have, according to Keith Rollag in the December 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review. The others are—you guessed it—hesitating to introduce yourself and failing to ask questions.

It’s the “names challenge” that interests me. Some jobs just demand that ability. For example, how do the good politicians and priests keep their mental Rolodex up-to-date? The politicians remember their constituents and the priests put a name to each sheep in their flock. Do they have skill or talent? Or help from above?

Rollag advises us to work at it: say the name in conversation right after hearing it; write it down as soon as you can and review your notes until the name is locked in; and, of course, create a vivid image to link the name with an unforgettable object or situation. Picture Rock Hudson as a giant boulder dropped into a river, with the New York City skyline in the background.

Can this advice work? Seeing is believing, so I’ve long been a believer. In the summer of 1972, I took a course in Canadian history from Dr. Bev Koester. As the students straggled into the classroom for the first session, he studied us without uttering a word. When everyone was seated, he began to take attendance.

“Mr. Williams,” followed by long seconds of silent scrutiny.

“Mr. Goski.” More silent scrutiny.

The process continued until all thirty students had been named, scrutinized and entered into his name bank. “Please take the same seat at our next two sessions, after which you will be welcome to sit where you please.”

The methodical roll call resumed in the second and third sessions. From then on, he used our names without hesitation or error, regardless of where we sat. A year later, I took another class from him and was greeted with “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Goski” as I entered the classroom.

By then, I had come to know why he had developed this skill. It was an essential part of his previous job—Clerk of the Saskatchewan Legislature. Dr. Koester was required to recognize each of the 59 members of the House in turn by the name of their constituency when the member rose to vote on an issue. [And yes, I never addressed him as anything other than “Dr. Koester.”]

After an interval as a spell-binding lecturer at the University of Regina, Bev Koester went on to become Clerk of the House of Commons, where he duly mastered the names and constituencies of 282 Members of Parliament. By then, I was working on Parliament Hill and would watch in admiration as he handled the standing votes: “The Honourable Member from Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, The Honourable Member from Kenora—Rainy River, The Honourable Member from Assiniboia” and so on, until the roll had been called.

How many hours had he spent, poring over lists and pictures of the Members, linking their names and constituencies to the faces? I don’t know, but I’m reasonably sure he had the memory work done before newly-elected Members even came within view of the Parliament Buildings.

So yes, we can win the name game. It takes desire, will and practice. Judging how clearly I remember my reaction when my name was called out by Dr. Koester after the interval of a year, the effort is worthwhile.

[For further information about Dr. Bev Koester, see this brief Wikipedia article and this entry from Hansard. For more on succeeding in new situations, see Keith Rollag’s article in Harvard Business Review.]


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