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12. May I Ask Who Is Speaking?

What's in a name?

—William Shakespeare

One of the most thrilling celebrity experiences I ever had was in meeting Gregory Peck. It was a self-introduction when we found ourselves sort of face-to-face at some function. What impressed me the most was that he stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Greg Peck." Everyone in the whole room, of course, knew the legendary Gregory Peck, even, at the time, 25-year-olds such as myself. But the humility and friendliness of his gesture was unforgettable.

A Million Dollar Secret

With this question, Shakespeare raised a debate for all the ages. And because the number-one rule of etiquette is to make others feel comfortable, saying your name when someone else has forgotten it is very polite, both professionally and personally. It almost always prompts others to say their own names too, and prevents embarrassment especially when someone is trying to introduce people whose names have escaped him.

Saying your first and last name is the sign of an executive. Simply going by your first name denotes an assistant. This used to be mostly true of women secretaries and assistants, but as more men take these positions, they are falling into this habit, too. If you strive to get beyond an assistant position in your career, begin using both your first and last name to introduce yourself on the phone, in person, and in e-mail.

Conversely, if you are looking to take away some of the barriers or intimidation of your position, you may simply refer to yourself by your first name. It tends to level the playing field for others and keeps you closer to the action.

Speaking of names, a million dollar secret I happened to come across early in my marketing career is the practice of asking whomever answers the phone in my most smiling voice, "Hi, who's this?" Without thinking, the person on the other end almost always responds, and suddenly I'm on a first-name basis with the executive secretary, the cold call, the office mate, or the receptionist. I make sure to use his or her name in the next minutes of my conversation and spell it correctly on my contact file, so I can always greet him or her by name when he or she answers the phone again. On the rare occasion that I am met with a sour attitude ("Well, whom were you calling?"), I always explain that I just like to know to whom I'm speaking, and then we're off and running. People like the sound of their own names and the people who take time to know them.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Experts disagree on how best to address yourself, but they all consider it important. Does a formal or old-fashioned sounding name indicate professionalism or make one sound too old or too boring? Does your name make you sound friendly and approachable, seductive, or childish? Be objective.

Unless you are an attorney, middle initials are usually left behind in favor of a first and last name. A hyphenated married name can be a bit laborious too, especially when it is translated to e-mail.

Not enough of us pay attention to the image our names conjure up. Usually, nicknames from childhood are not appropriate on resumes or in the corporate suite. Use your most formal name, Elizabeth. Wait until you are safely ensconced in an office place that finds you indispensable before you casually mention that friends call you Bunny.

Ask yourself what signals the names Destiny, Taisha, Johnny, or Scarlett send. Increasingly, companies are using both first and last names on e-mail so you are further labeled with expectations. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare went on to say, "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." But if don't like your name or suspect that it will get in your way, then go by a version of the name that will help you get where you want to go.

When the children of this decade grow up, it may be more common to hire Sages, Destinys, and Kenesaw Mountains, but the time isn't yet.

Experts note that a resume is not a legal document like a job application, but is rather a marketing tool. So let the name you choose for it represent the casual and memorable employee you will be.

This is probably not the first nor will it be the last time that your Stacey, Tracy, Chris, or Pat will have people confused about your sex. Be gracious over the confusion and remember that being a good sport may work to your advantage.

Names will often reveal nationality or heritage. Sometimes, it's a good idea to shorten a foreign-sounding name to initials, or even to add a nickname in quotes. However, one's name IS, after, all, one's name. If you are proud of your name and heritage, by all means use it. Perhaps that way you'll find your place in equality oriented companies with people who embrace diversity.

I know someone whose first name is Gaye, which her mother chose for happiness and light in the 1950s. She now uses her middle name instead because she is heterosexual and doesn't want her name to distract her clients from the business at hand. A firm, once known as Public Relations Aids changed its name too, because everyone confused this brochure and press release–writing company as part of the disease effort.

How could anyone have known, more than two decades ago, what you would grow up wanting to be or how the meaning of a name would change? Most of us do this naturally. We adopt a married name, or don't. We add an e, shorten or lengthen our first names, and simply try to get comfortable with our own names as grownups, which is how we identify ourselves to the world.

Let your friends call you by your mother-chosen or childhood nickname, but choose a professional, easy to spell name for yourself, similar in sounds or letters to the one your mother gave you, but more well suited for establishing your career.

One African-American mother named her daughter with both African- and American-sounding names so two decades from now, Olivia Taisha could choose which name better represented her in her world. Will she be a braided rock star who goes only by Taisha, or will she be a corporate lawyer, known as Olivia T. Jones? Only time and Olivia Taisha will tell.

Conversational Credibility

In addition to using your name, an aside, such as, "When I taught at Julliard...," or "At Harvard Business School, I...," or "Writing for the New York Times we...," very subtly gives your background and establishes your credibility. So take the time to reduce your curriculum vitae to an appropriate phrase, preferably with an endorser in it. Pick something that is unique to you. For example, a Cajun chef might establish his expertise with, "Growing up in Louisiana...." Most of us didn't do that, so we might enjoy the different flavor of his cuisine.

If you are young, under 30, addressing clients and superiors as Mr., Ms., Doctor, and Professor shows respect and is usually appreciated. At the appropriate time, they will invite you to call them by their first names, often with the friendly chastisement that Mr. is his father and you should call him Jim or Bob or Mark or whatever. Accept the invitation. Unless a woman executive makes it clear that she prefers the salutation Mrs., it has no place in the corporate suite.

An associate of mine once coached a co-founder and chief fund-raiser for a charity. Apparently, she was a highly intelligent woman, poised and articulate.. .a charming conversationalist. As they began working together to prepare an important fund-raising speech, my colleague asked her some questions: "What has been your experience speaking in front of groups? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What happens to you physically when you do it?" Her answers were forthcoming and honest. The more she spoke, the more he listened. The more he listened, the more she trusted. One thing she said particularly caught his attention. She was uncomfortable with her name — or, more precisely, with saying, her name. "My name is___________ ." Those words, she confessed, froze her. Her throat would tighten, her voice would shake, her breathing would become shallow — all familiar symptoms of public speaking anxiety.

My colleague is a speech coach, not a psychiatrist, so he didn't delve into the why's and wherefore's, but it was obvious that if your opening sentence always makes you freeze, you will have a hard time warming up. So they talked about her name — where it came from, what it meant, what it felt like when she said it, or when other people said it. They practiced saying it out loud. She said, "My name is..." so many times that she eventually started laughing. The mere repetition had defused her anxiety somehow. Made it funny, less important, less fraught with anxiety. She went home and practiced saying it in front of a mirror. The practice helped. The tightness in the throat transformed into a smile. Warmth and humor crept into her voice and her breathing relaxed. A subtle but profound change was taking place. She was feeling good.

They met again, after her speech. He asked her how it went. "Great!" she said. "I got through the name part easily and after that everything just went fine. People told me afterwards how funny I was."

"Did you raise a lot of money?" I asked.

"Only about $10,000 that night," she said. "But the next day, over $200,000 came in." What's in a name, indeed.

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