Facilitators: Get Good With Names

Many people say they are not good with names, and apologize in advance for forgetting yours (over and over again). However, if you are facilitating a new group, it doesn’t ingratiate you if after the first few hours you still cannot call on people by their names. Or worse, call them by the wrong names; or even worse, start to only call on the people whose names you know (I’ve seen this happen, but of course YOU would never do that!)

What About Name Tags?

Many workshop organizers kindly try to help this by using name tags. Yet somehow at the beginning of the session there are miraculously still many left over on the registration table, when every seat is filled. And it is even more remarkable how you can not read a name printed in number 10 font from more than 2 meters. Or how thoughtfully people put them on at the beginning of the workshop and then as the morning wears on, and they feel more comfortable (from your good facilitation no doubt), take off their jacket or sweater, nametag firmly affixed, and hang it over their chair. And you can forget more than 20% of your participants remembering to put them on for Day 2 (do you?) – by then everyone is sure that everyone else knows their name. Finally, if you are a facilitator that is new to a group whose members already know one another well, they will probably not think to have name tags in the first place.

So what about name plates then – those folded over paper cards, that could help, right? Well, just one change around for small group work  (and we want that interactivity) and the names are all in the wrong place. And there is also something slightly amusing about the fact that, when name plates are only printed on one side, people seem more often than not to put that side facing themselves.

So failing name tags and name plates, what else can you do to get good with names?

Use Group Introductions Strategically

Well, normally workshops start with some kind of group check-in or introduction, with participants sharing their names and organizations, or something about themselves. Just before they start this, quickly draw the layout of the room (tables at least) on the top of your agenda. Then, write down their first names as they say them, indicating where they are sitting at that time. If you jot down a key word or two, or the colour they are wearing, that can also help. “Introductions” is also the best time to ask people to repeat their names if you did not quite catch them (then write them down). In the end you have a full seating plan, and even if people change later on, you can usually remember where they started, or greatly narrow it down, and use it for reference as needed throughout the event.

Usually at some point, workshop organizers also distribute participant lists, but perhaps not to the Facilitator; they might put them in the participants packs, or they send it to you by email in advance. Make sure you have a copy on hand, whatever it takes, and keep it with you at all times when you start. You can also use that for notetaking during introductions, noting a memorable thing about each person as they speak (although I usually prefer the seating plan capture described above – it’s a visual snapshot of the group). If a Keynote presentation follows and you are in the back, use your participants list or “seating map” to practice names while the speaker has their attention (and they are not moving around).

Here’s another idea, when you write up your facilitator’s agenda, write in all the people’s names who are contributing. Even if people are giving short presentations, briefing an activity, meeting people for the bus – put in their full names and titles in bold the first time they are mentioned. Then with your agenda in hand, you can check the name quickly at any point in the session, after they have made themselves known through this contribution (you will probably be briefing them beforehand anyways).

Use It Or Lose It (Memory-wise)

You can also reinforce people’s names by using them at every possible opportunity (without being irritating, I think that is something that they teach in some job interview courses, and overused it gets cloying). After you say someone’s name a few times you usually have it. That also starts to narrow down to just a few whose names you really don’t remember or are not sure enough of to use in front of the group. At that point check your seating plan notes, or better yet, in the next break go and ask them or ask someone else for their name. Then the first chance you get, use it, twice (Lizzie, you’re next! Thanks Lizzie.)

By the end of the first half day, by combining a few or all of these things, you should have everyone’s name and be ready to work much more closely with the group from then on. It makes a noticeable of difference getting to know a group when you can call each and every person by name – helping them accept you as their process guide, inviting them personally to engage, and encouraging them to try something new and potentially take some steps out of their individual comfort zones.  Do all these things, and you will proudly be able to say, “I’m good with names.”

Any other tricks? Please share them!

2 replies
  1. Michael Randel
    Michael Randel says:

    Another practical post!

    A challenge I have faced many times in working with international groups (or when I travel to other countries) is that participants' names are in a language I don't speak, and may not be familiar with their forms of names.

    I like the tip of creating a seating map.

    I also listen to how people introduce themselves and what they are called by others – the familiar form or nicknames often differ from the formal names printed on participant lists. Then I try to mimic how people are saying the names.

    That's how you learn that 'Xolisa' prefers to be called 'Xola' – and of course it's with a X click on the first letter, rather than a C click or a Q click. Right?

  2. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    Hi Michael, Thanks so much for the tip – you are right about nicknames and familiar names. It is also the case that in some parts of the world, the family name comes first when written, yet people wish to be called by their "first" name (now that term is a cultural construct, I just realised!)

    I think it is also ok, when working with a new group to use a conference-style technique, which is to ask people when they have a question (at least at the beginning of an event)to stand up and say their name, and then ask their question. You can introduce that at the beginning of the first morning and be honest, let them know it is to help everyone learn each other's names.

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