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.]


Noted in passing, May 17, 2015

It’s been just over a week since Elizabeth May’s sad performance at the Press Gallery dinner. You remember the one: F-bombs masquerading as toughness; incoherent mini- lectures about the hobbyhorse of the moment; lauding a grenade-thrower and smearing the entire federal cabinet in a juvenile turn of phrase. Surely the political damage is severe. If one of the other parties chooses to run an election commercial against the Greens, it’s bound to become an instant classic. A waste of money, but a classic.

Hats off to Lisa Raitt, who had the courage to mount the platform to rescue her friend from herself. The sight of Ms Raitt shepherding and consoling Ms May while being denounced as classless by Ms May should linger in our memories. Anyone would be lucky to have such a stout-hearted friend.

I was startled to hear the slogan “smooth as hell” in a liquor commercial during prime time this week. Not offended, mind you. Just startled that a copywriter could get away with a slogan that sounds like a fourteen-year old trying on a bad-boy act. Daffy Duck sashaying into a saloon and asking for sarsaparilla in a dirty glass sounds more authentic.

Checking out coverage of the National March for Life on Parliament Hill, I came across a tweet that featured a couple of grinning women carrying signs that read “Life is overrated” and “I hate life.” Really? In your heart of hearts – really?

Magnificat – food for the mind and spirit

Each month, a deceptively simple envelope arrives from Belgium. Hidden behind its plain exterior lies one of the riches of Catholic publishing, Magnificat. Physically, the book doesn’t promise a great deal. At 4.4″ x 6.6″ and 476 pages, it fits comfortably in my jacket pocket. Weighing only 178 grams, it is light enough to hold in one hand for an extended period. And hold it I do, three times a day.

Magnificat envelope

It would be fair to describe Magnificat as seductive. The seduction begins with the beauty of art. Each month, two artworks are featured. A brief essay comments on the cover art, and an extended essay explores the masterpiece reproduced near the end of the book. In the May 2015 issue, the cover reproduces Adoration by Giuseppe Magni (1869-1956) and the featured artwork is The Ascension of Christ, a terracotta sculpture crafted by Luca della Robbia in 1446 in Florence.


Each day, Magnificat leads the reader through morning prayer, the daily Mass readings and evening prayer. Taking May 1, the Feast of St Joseph, as an example, the reader would encounter:

  • John 14:2, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house….”
  • Psalm 131, “O Lord, remember David and all the hardships he endured…”
  • Revelation 21:3, “…his name is God-with-them.”
  • The Canticle of Zechariah (Lk 1:68-79) “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel! He has visited his people and redeemed them….”
  • General intercessions: “You have chosen us as your resting place for ever: grant us peace in your presence.”
  • Acts 13:26-33, “…this message of salvation is meant for you.”
  • Psalm 2: “The Lord said to me: ‘You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.'”
  • John 14:1-6, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me.”
  • Meditation of the Day: a brief essay, “United with Saint Joseph the Worker” by Anthony Esolen.
  • Matthew 6:20-21, “Store up treasures for yourselves in heaven….”
  • Psalm 48, “Why should I fear in evil days the malice of the foes who surround me.”
  • 1 Peter 1:17-21, “If you are acknowledging as your Father one who has no favourites….”
  • The Magnificat, Lk 1:46-55, “My soul glorifies the Lord….”
  • A brief essay on saints who were physically disabled.
  • A two-page essay about Sister Ida Peterfy

During May, one would encounter 46 of the Psalms, various essays and a close reading of the Gospel for the sixth Sunday of Easter. The saints one would meet include St Gilbert of Sempringham (died 1189), St Charles Borromeo (died 1584), St Bede the Venerable (died 735) among many others. Meditations are drawn from St Alphonsus Liguori, Willa Cather, St Catherine of Siena, Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, St Philip Neri, St Symeon the New Theologian and twenty-five other writers.

For those who wonder about our Latin heritage, the Kyrie, Gloria and Creed are provided in Latin and English.


A short note about the versions. Magnificat in English is available in an American and an International English version. The American version uses the New American Bible while the International version uses the Jerusalem Bible. Since the Canadian lectionary is based on the NRSV translation, I felt free to indulge myself and choose the version which includes “Glory be to the Father…” in the formula I grew up with. If you recognize the reference, you would probably make the same choice.

Magnificat is also available in French and Spanish versions. A subscription to the printed edition includes access to the online version. A iOS app is also available on the rare occasions when the book is not close at hand.

Putting a little pop into the mailbox

I love die-cut mail pieces. They can playful and still enhance the message. When done well, I delight in the creativity and craftsmanship. Here’s a particularly attractive example:

Scotiabank mailing, die-cut wndow envelope, popcorn on top

Die-cut window envelope, 9″ x 5.875″

Who hasn’t enjoyed popcorn and a movie?  They go together like Laurel and Hardy or credit card bills and headaches. I don’t usually open offers for credit cards but the popcorn did the trick. The imagery was carried over to the back of the envelope so that the whole piece was consistent, with a clear call to action on the front and back.


The envelope, including the area with the popcorn, appears to have been glued shut before the die cut was applied. The double thickness of the paper gave the popcorn area the strength to retain its shape in the mail and the late cut created a clean edge.

Scotiabank popcorn themed envelope and letter

As expected, the front of the letter carried over the colour scheme and popcorn imagery. The back of the letter, though, was taken up with the usual terms and conditions – a quick trip from the world of movies to the world of banking.

If you look closely, you’ll see that I’ve held onto this piece for more than a year. The artistry hasn’t gone stale.

Tiptoeing through a minefield of idioms

Should you do your “due diligence” or your “do diligence” when you set out to buy something more expensive than a box of Oreo cookies?

Christina Desmarais has the answer to that question and 19 others in an instructive article every business writer should scan. She cites errors found on websites belonging to Oxford University, the BBC, the White House, the New York Times and other high-profile organizations. Her examples may peak — I mean pique — your interest and save you from a minor embarrassment.

She notes that many of the errors won’t be caught by a spell checker. To test that comment, I used her examples in a Word 2013 document. The grammar checker identified only seven errors; it missed “shoe-in” and  “sneak peak.” It’s enough to disrupt anyone’s piece peace of mind.

How Indspire caught and held my attention

I couldn’t resist opening the envelope that the promised a “special gift” for me. It was from an organization I hadn’t heard of — Indspire. Before describing the contents, I’ll take a moment to comment on the envelope.

Fundraising package from Indspire, 8

Fundraising package from Indspire, 8″x5.5″, 62 grams, Addressed Admail.

The obvious thing to note is that the envelope did its job. It convinced me to open the package to examine the contents. At 8″x5.5″ and 62 grams, the package stood out from the rest of the mail that day.  I noted the Addressed Admail indicia in the upper right corner and the sortation information in the window, but that didn’t put me off. The prominent text promising a gift and the colourful images suggesting postcards primed me to expect something special inside.

Indspire fundraising package: 4-page letter, buckslip, gift, reply form and postage-paid reply envelope

Fundraising package: 4-page letter, buckslip, gift, reply form and postage-paid reply envelope

The 4-page letter appeared to be the work of a professional copy-writer. It had many of the classic elements. In the upper right hand corner of the first page, a Johnson box featured a moving first-person testimony. The text of the letter was written in a casual, first-person style and began with the sender’s self-introduction. Quickly, it introduced us to Amy and described how education had changed her life for the better. From there, the text carried me through an engaging mix of facts, benefits, testimonies and requests. Interestingly, the page breaks on the first and second page occurred in the midst of a sentence, encouraging me to move to the next page to complete the thought. Finally, in the standard P.S., the writer explained the purpose of the colourful note cards.

The other elements of the package complemented the letter. The buckslip provided talking points about the challenges being addressed. The reply card and envelope provided attractive options for making a donation. The note cards are beautiful and definitely will be used.

Did this mailing do its job? Yes, indeed. I read every word, examined every piece and visited Inspire’s website to learn more. Would an email have had the same effect? Not even close.

Fundraising appeal from a Member of Parliament

What a delight to receive this fundraising appeal in the mail! I don’t often say that about fundraising letters, but this one is special. Even if my name was mangled, somewhat.

A very welcome letter from Ralph Goodale, a mentor early in my working life.

A very welcome letter from Ralph Goodale, a mentor early in my working life.

Many years ago, during his first term as a Member of Parliament, Ralph Goodale hired me to work in his Ottawa office. It was a turning point for me. I had been employed by the Southeast Community College, setting up adult education classes in forty of the  communities in Ralph’s constituency, Assiniboia. The hours were long and the travel was endless; the deadlines were pressing; the people in the communities always had suggestions for more new classes. Being young, I thought I know what it meant to work hard.

Working for Ralph showed me how much I still had to learn. For every mile I had driven to meet with committees before moving to Ottawa, he had driven ten. For every document I read, every letter I drafted, every phone call I made, he had done twice as much. If I had read a report, he had not only read the report but he had formulated his response and reached out to the stakeholders. Honest, devoted to his constituents, on top of the issues — Ralph was one of the MP’s who improved our public life.

Because of the deep impression he made on me during the two years I worked for him, I have held firm to my faith in our political system. When someone complains about pettiness or corruption on Parliament Hill, I counter with my favourite example of what an MP can and should be. And even now, as the leader has taken the party down a path I can’t follow, I intend to watch the late returns on election night, hoping that Ralph once again graces the House of Commons.

By the way, if you want to get a sense of what’s happening in Regina and many other places, follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphGoodale.

Hudson’s Bay strikes the right note

Hudson’s Bay sent a beautiful promotion last week. Restrained typography on a smooth, cream-coloured #10 envelope made it stand out from the other commercial mail. Two features caught my eye. The prominent “Hudson’s Bay” in the upper left corner quietly said “We’re embracing our history.” The custom indicia featuring the Hudson’s Bay blanket reinforced the message.

Unaddressed admail letter from Hudson's Bay

Addressed admail letter from Hudson’s Bay

The letter was sent as a machinable admail piece. Without the extra sortation information in the address block, the piece looked very much like standard lettermail. Inside the envelope, the letter’s formatting and substantial paper reinforced the overall, dignified appearance. Two tipped-on gift cards, in muted colours, completed the offering.

Why did I pay attention to this piece? Was it the apostrophe in the company’s name? A generation ago, iconic stores like Hudson’s Bay became The Bay and Eaton’s became Eaton for political reasons. Does the reapparance of the humble apostrophe say something about the state of our politics?

Maybe it’s the retro theme that stands out: quiet type, the old name, the old blanket. Nothing is much more retro in Canada than a company charted 200 years before the country was founded.

So you think surveillance is oppressive today?

In recent weeks, the public has learned a lot about the extent of surveillance in our post-9/11 world. The Guardian’s story about the NSA’s activities set off a frenzy of speculation and comment. Naturally, Orwell was invoked by many commentators and Huxley by a few. My own thoughts turned to the small town where I grew up, to the intense and personal surveillance that did so much to knit the community together.

I spent my childhood and teenage years in a Western Canadian hamlet that was home to about 45 people. The surrounding farming population had already begun to dwindle as farms grew larger and families smaller. It was an intimate setting, where joy and pain were shared and no one made the mistake of thinking they were invisible to their neighbors.

  • The region had been settled for 60 years, so the families in the area had at least two generations of memories about each other. They remembered the hopeful years of early settlement, the near-despair of the Hungry Thirties, the worry and deprivation during WWII, the arrival of electricity in the 50’s and 60’s. And they remembered the courtships, births and deaths, community dances, rowdy brawls, sports days, church events and political campaigns that provided the context for our lives. Everyone had a history, and everyone else knew a good part of it.
  • Phone service was a party line. It was prudent to assume that no conversations was private. Fortunately, you knew who was listening.
  • Farmers’ fields were always open to inspection by their neighbors. On a relaxing Sunday drive through the neighborhood, anyone could see who wasn’t keeping their weeds down, who’s furrows weren’t straight, who’s harvest hadn’t been taken in quickly enough.
  • Since most of the grain was sold through the Wheat Board, with controlled quotas and pricing, everyone could estimate their neighbor’s income with a high degree of precision.
  • Most farmyards were open to view from various angles. At least one person I knew used a strong set of binoculars to keep tabs on nearby farms from her kitchen window.
  • The weekly newspaper in the nearby small city ran a social column about each of the hamlets in the region. Wednesdays brought a fresh batch of reports of Sunday visits, anniversaries, and various milestones, published for all to see.

Was this communal life unstintingly painful? Not at all. For every inconvenience or intrusion, there was at least one offsetting gain. The deep knowledge of one’s history conferred an undeniable dignity on each person; however frayed the bond, we belonged in each others’ lives. The party line was a lifeline which informed the entire community instantly whenever fire, accident or bereavement struck. Farmers who were struggling because of ill health did not have to ask for help because the need was evident in the state of their fields. The financial pain of depressed prices or hail-damaged crops was shared by all. No one grieved, worried or celebrated alone.

The surveillance was real, intimate, and omnipresent. In that corner of the world, it was more penetrating than today’s anonymous monitoring of emails, phone calls and Facebook posts. On balance, it contributed to a more intense social life which is preferable to the anomie currently endured by so many in urban centers.

Extending charity, one ticket at a time

Knights of Clumbus charities raffle drum, Toronto, May 19, 2013

Charities raffle drum, Toronto, May 19, 2013

You may have seen us in shopping malls and other public locations, selling tickets for the Knights of Columbus charities raffle. You know the scene: one or two people at a table greeting you as you approach, offering a $2 ticket or 3 for $5, filling in your contact information, wishing you luck and thanking you for your purchase.

What you may not know is how much work goes into administering the raffle and how much good the proceeds accomplish. At the local level, our work begins in late October when the tickets arrive. From then until late April, we have crews of volunteers scheduled in 3-hour or 4-hour shifts, offering tickets to the public. Other volunteers account for the tickets and the money, reviewing each day’s sales and submitting the proceeds to our council’s financial secretary and treasurer. The final accounting is carried out in mid-May and the tickets are turned in at the Knights of Columbus annual convention the day before the draw takes place. This year, the draw was held on May 19; the list of winners is published on the Ontario Knights of Columbus website.

Member of the Knights of Columbus selling raffle tickets at a pancake breakfast

Ray, selling raffle tickets at a pancake breakfast

At the annual convention, representatives of some of the charities we sponsor speak to the delegates about the impact of our charitable giving. Margaret Wills of the Arthritis Society reported that with the money we provided last year, the Society launched a chronic pain management program for children; they also supplied children with ergonomically-designed backpacks filled with information and tools for those recently diagnosed with arthritis. Taylor Redmond, a young athlete from Guelph, spoke eloquently about what Special Olympics has meant to him. A competitor in basketball, track and swimming, Taylor believes he can do anything the rest of us can do but he knows that he needs help and patience. He thanked the Knights in Guelph for helping him along his entire athletic career. There weren’t many dry eyes in the room when he finished speaking.

Our volunteers are taking a break over the summer. We’ll be back in the fall, looking to raise much-needed money for charities that make a difference in our community. When you see one of us, drop by to say hello and, if you can, pick up a few tickets. Your smiles keeps the volunteers coming back and your dollars help in many ways across the province.