Hosting 101: Learn speakers’ names

Blog 6 of 8: Toastmasters, don’t let memorizing odd names kick your butt

As a member and the (former) Vice President of Education of Unity Toastmasters (a community club in Toastmasters International), I chose one of eleven Pathways — “Presentations Mastery” — as a public speaking goal. This is the blog series of eight posts I wrote in one month to complete Level 4.*

“I don’t want to accidentally hit you in the nose,” I said.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “What are you going to do? Break my nose again? It may line up correctly this time.”

I laughed at my substitute fitness instructor when he said that. His nose looked just fine to me, but he definitely had a “got them hands” vibe.

While he helped me wrestle off boxing gloves, he asked, “What’s your name?”

I responded how I usually do. “My real name is Shə mawn T L, but you can call me Montie.”

He paused and sounded it out slowly: “Shə mawn T L. Got it.”

And for the next two weeks, after randomly seeing me around the gym going to other classes or upstairs to the weight/elliptical areas, this instructor (who later became my Muay Thai Kickboxing instructor) would make eye contact and stumble through my name. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

I’m at the gym (usually) five days a week, and he is the only instructor who I’ve seen take a genuine interest in learning his students’ full names. (In all fairness, my Pilates, Hardcore Abs and WERQ instructors greet me by nickname.)

But I never expected to see the Total Body Conditioning sub again. I had no initial interest in Muay Thai kickboxing and only went to that TBC with another instructor a few times. But him making a point of learning my name was 50 percent of the reason I tried out his kickboxing class.

(The other 50 percent was that I think all women should take self-defense classes and other students in his classes were clearly friendly with him.)

When I hear someone yell out my full first name from way across the gym, I know who it is and smile before I even turn around. It’s a simple trade-off. Practice makes perfect to learn names — and roundhouse kicks.

New people, new names

For people with common names, this may not seem like a big deal.

And for people who love to shorten short names, this’ll really go over their heads. (Do you really need to shorten “Becky” to “Bex”? It’s already two syllables as is.)

But for people with long names, this is a sign of respect. This says to them that you actually respect them enough to learn who they are — weird name and all.

If you’re a member of Toastmasters, there is a pretty high chance that you will meet people from all walks of life. I am always meeting new people from all over the world. If you’re part of a club with 357,000 members from 16,600 clubs in 143 countries, enjoy the melting pot.

I walked into a Unity Toastmasters meeting one day and a gentleman named Amjad (an uncommon name, to me anyway) tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, I’m from Dubai and I have to head out to Germany tonight. Do you mind if I talk to you guys for five to seven minutes?”

Sure, Amjad, do you!

Another week, I came to a meeting and there were approximately 10 students from Malcolm X college who came to hang out at Toastmasters.

During Table Topics, I made a point of trying to match these students’ faces to names. Most of the names were common, but I stumbled over a couple. Still though, my name is Shamontiel. Therefore, I will always try to get your name correctly.

Do you have a nickname?

The thing about asking someone you just met for his or her nickname is you’ve basically told them that you couldn’t give a damn about learning their real names. We don’t need you to love our names. You don’t have to tell us how [cool/different/unique/pretty] it is. Our parents approved it, and that’s the only co-signers we needed. And, yes, we are aware that you’ve never heard our names before.

But if I introduce myself to you as “Shamontiel,” I am fully prepared for you to butcher my name. I’m absolutely ready for you to respond with, “Say that again.” And I will immediately grow paranoid if you say it correctly without me pronouncing it first: Who do you know who knows me?

I worked for a temp agency one summer in Aurora. Out of the entire team of 30 or so, who I regularly engaged with via email and in person, only five people could say my name correctly. The rest chose to not say it at all or just waved awkwardly when I greeted each of them by name.

I even tried helping them out by writing out the pronunciation above the name tag on my desk. When I was introduced to others, there’d be an awkward stumble and then a hint that I should introduce myself instead.

What really blew my mind was another temp, who was a photo editor, who told me flat out, “Listen, I have to remember the normal names first. I’ll just use a nickname for you.”

The worst part was that photo editor’s last name was even more unusual than my first name. That was our first and last conversation, even though he (unfortunately) sat at the desk right next to mine.

The art of the name game in Toastmasters

First impressions can make or break any event you’re attending, from fitness courses to Toastmasters. But sometimes there are a lot of names to learn at once.

If you are one of those Table Topics Masters, invocation speakers, timers, grammarians, presidents, area directors and so forth who is overwhelmed by learning all the new (and current) people’s names, here are a few tips.

These odd-name games may save you some head scratching when it’s time for you to start critiquing other Toastmasters.

  • Try a Table Topics question asking about the origin or the story behind [insert unusual name]. This person will have to say his or her name enough times for you to hear the correct way to say it.
  • Make sure this odd-named person signs the guestbook or sign-in sheet. Write down the pronunciation next to the name and text it to yourself. Or, ask the odd-named person to do it.
  • Suggest the person with the odd name take on a Toastmasters role so you can get used to spelling and seeing that name. (You win so many brownie points for being able to memorize the spelling of our names.)
  • Find common ways to make our names make sense to you. For example: “Montie” is easy to pronounce if you have heard of the comedy group Monty Python or a Monte Carlo car. As long as you say the word “Montie” in the middle of my name, you’re saying it correctly: Shə-MONTIE-L.

And if all else fails, just ask, “How do you say your name again?” We won’t get mad. Trust me. We had to struggle through learning to spell and pronounce our odd names as first-timers too.

Additional posts from Shamontiel’s eight-part Toastmasters blog series:

‘Are you mad at me?’: The art of handwritten letters ~ Toastmasters, handwritten letters never go out of style

Why I made my Toastmasters group cry ~ Table Topics is fun, but I turned it into therapy

Failed English final, became professional writer: School expulsion, failing grade ~ Why I chose the Harlem Renaissance for my Toastmasters speech

Toastmasters, what’s so funny? ~ The ‘Engaging Humor’ Path launches in Toastmasters Pathways

Barry Brewer: Chicago comedian keeps us laughing ~ Actor/comedian gives tips on humorous public speaking for Toastmasters

Make Drake-level eye contact without being creepy ~ Toastmasters, learn how to visually connect with your audience

Making odd topics interesting, thanks to Hasan Minhaj ~ Toastmasters, talk about what you want to know, not just what you know now

This post was originally published on February 15, 2019 on Chicago Now’s “Message from Montie” blog.

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Check out her six Medium pubs: BlackTechLogy, Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk. Visit to read about her.

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