Here’s a great way to kill an improv scene: call a character by a wrong name once their name has already been established in a scene. Been there, done that. The audience picks up on it immediately because they have nothing to do but watch and listen. Typically, if the other performers in the scene are supportive, they’ll make an attempt at some sort of save. “Put on your glasses, Jeff?” Or, “Grandpa, it’s me, Gary! Grandma said you’d stopped taking your meds.”
No matter what the attempt is, it’s noticeable that there was a miss.
Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often on stage. Improvisors stay focused and when a name is introduced, they use techniques for quickly committing it to memory. So where is this focus when we meet people for the first time in our day-to-lives? We’ve all had that experience where we meet someone, get their name, and then instantly forget it. We do this knowing that no sound is sweeter to a person’s ears than their own name. We know names are important. We know people appreciate it when you remember them, and we still forget it literally one second after they tell us.
There are a few explanations for this, and perhaps improv comedy sheds some light on one of them. Improvisers must stay completely in the moment, responding to what is happening as it is happening, and without crafting or concocting where they’re hoping the scene goes in their minds. If an improvisor starts focusing on where they want the scene to go or where they assume the scene is going, they tune out and miss key details, like names or what someone is holding, or what the relationship might be with their scene partners. In improv, we call it “having an agenda” and in our rehearsal rooms we work on ways of dropping this agenda to stay in the moment.
What kind of an agenda are we bringing when we meet people at social and professional events, or meeting new people at the office or organizations? Are we subtly listening for what they can do for us, or even what they mean to us? Are we subtly listening for what we can do for them? What we may not be listening for is the only thing that matters in the two seconds when they shake your hand and introduce themselves: their name.
That’s it. In that moment, nothing is more important. Don’t worry: you will have opportunities to find out what they do, or how they know your sister’s husband, or why they are wearing a Michigan State hat and a University of Michigan shirt . . . in another moment. This moment is about the name.
Is remembering names part of your organization’s culture? That may sound strange, but we’ve worked with clients who, informally and sometimes even formally, have made it part of theirs.
One of our bigger clients (as it relates to number of employees) had a past President that was remarkable at remembering names. We didn’t learn this from the President himself (though he always remembered our names). We learned this from the employees. We talked to a variety of employees at many different levels who all commented on how impressed they were at this President’s ability to remember so many names. It was one of the top things they brought up to us immediately after his retirement. They told us that it made him seem more accessible and showed that he truly had an interest in getting to know the individuals on this enormous team. There was a never a formal system in place, but this leadership did have an effect, and many of the employees pride themselves on knowing the names of so many of their co-workers.
Another client we work with has valued the importance of recognizing names to such a degree that they have screens around the facilities with rotating headshots of every employee and their name. The expectation is that every employee know the name of every other employee . . . and this is not a small company.
Knowing co-workers names has a tremendous impact on an organization’s culture. It adds a connectedness that allows for healthier communication and better problem solving. We do a lot of work with clients who work toward better communication between different departments. These departments often depend on each other, but in many cases do not understand the details of what the other department does. Naturally, this can cause some confusion and frustration. When this happens, it’s easy to lash out at the nameless marketing department, or nameless accounting department, etc.: However, people pause and take a little more tact before lashing out at Wendy, or Mike or someone they know by name. This invites calmer heads and opens the doors for better solutions.
Remembering names creates an inclusiveness and a culture of welcoming. It creates a positive energy. It may be trite to quote the theme song from Cheers, although it wouldn’t be the first time (both that we’ve been trite and that we’ve quoted 80’s TV shows), but you want to go where everybody knows your name. Of course, you’d probably be happy at work if they had beer on tap too, but those nameless jerks in HR say that’s where the Cheers references end. However, Justin and Cindy from HR said they’d be happy to meet you for a beer after work to explain the rationale behind it.
Make getting better at remembering names a personal goal for yourself and see how you can impact your organization’s culture by being good at it. Want some tips for remembering names? Google remembering names and you’ll get about a billion ways. Want a fun - and experiential - way to work on it as an organization? Improv Effects has some hands-on, large group exercises for learning and remembering names that can have an impact on your culture.