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How to Avoid Travolta-izing Names in Your Professional Presentations

Posted by Bridget Beirne
March 5, 2014

Correct pronunciation of names is an important part of your business etiquette and professional communication skills.

By now, everyone has heard about John Travolta's name gaffe at the Oscars. Undoubtedly, you've seen your friends Travolta-ized names thanks to slate.com, or watched the clip make the rounds on social media. But just in case you haven't (Hey- it's been a busy news week!) here's a quick rundown.

Basically, John Travolta was introducing Broadway and film actor Idina Menzel before her performance of "Let It Go" from the movie Frozen, nominated for best song. All was going pretty well until he went to actually introduce Idina. When he got to her name, what came out was "Adele Dazeem".




In the interest of full disclosure, I am very sensitive about people's names, perhaps because I have an oft-mispronounced last name. My last name is "Beirne", pronounced like "burn". (As in what I silently do internally when it's mispronounced...) I've taken to making the jokes about it: "Yep, pronounced "burn"- nothing like it looks." "I before E except after C or in 'Beirne'." But I still feel bad when I get up to perform or speak, and the person introducing me gets my name wrong because they've never checked how to say it. It's my name! I try to work very hard to make it mean something. In return, I do my best to get other people's names right, because I know it means something to them, as well.

For the record, I am never upset when someone asks me to clarify the pronunciation of my name. On the contrary, I'm flattered. There's nothing wrong with being unsure about it- I totally get it! I know it's not the easiest name in the world! When someone checks in with me, they are telling me that it's important to them to get my name right.

Anyone can make a mistake. Anyone can get lost in a teleprompter, and certainly, if a name presents a pronunciation challenge like mine does, even people with the best intentions can get it wrong. We're all human! What jumped out at me after "Travolta-gate" (if you will) was that he knew he was introducing someone by name. Whether that person is world famous, or famous only to their mother, their name is important. Any difficulties, stumbles, or accidents aside, if you are saying someone's name you need to make sure, to the best of your ability, that it is correct.

Showing respect to names is an important part of your professional communication skills. Itprofessional communication skills shows the person that you are discussing that you care about who they are. How can you ensure that you aren't putting someone's name in through the Travolta-izer? Here are some best practices when working with names:


1. Do a sweep for names: Go through your content with an eye to any names that you are going to mention. Highlight or make a list of names you intend to use. Cross off any names that you absolutely know how to pronounce.


2. Check or double check: If you have any question, any question at all, check the pronunciation. If you can, go directly to the person and ask THEM to pronounce it. (A helpful tip- no matter what the name might look like, a person will pronounce their name the way they want it pronounced!) Have them repeat it if need be, and then repeat it back to them to verify. If you can't speak directly to the person, do some research. Ask someone who would know, or search on line for extra help.


3. PRACTICE the name: Once you know how the name is pronouned, practice it. Make yourself as comfortable with that name as you can to avoid stumbling on it or accidentally turning it into something else entirely. Spending time to get it right shows respect.


Though I'm sure Mr. Travolta's intentions were good, he must've known far in advance that he'd be introducing Ms. Menzel. While accidents can happen, when you know you're dealing with someone's name you can take control of the situation with a bit of research and practice. Get those names right, and you'll never have to ask anyone to "Let It Go".  



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