3 Tips to Avoid Mispronouncing Names

John Travolta and Neil Patrick Harris are both guilty of mispronouncing names at the 2015 Oscars. The Public Speaker offers advice on how to avoid mispronouncing names and how to handle it if you make a mistake.

Lisa B. Marshall
3-minute read
Episode #287

Even if you didn’t watch the 2014 Oscars, you’ve probably heard how terribly John Travolta mispronounced singer Idina Menzel’s name just before her performance. He called her Adele Dazeem! He’s been the brunt of many internet and late night talk show jokes ever since.

During the 2015 Oscars, Idina Menzel introduced John Travolta as Glom Gazingo. It was a good-natured way to acknowledge his flub last year and show that they both had a sense of humor about it.

Host Neil Patrick Harris flubbed a few names at the Oscars, too; most notably, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s admittedly challenging name. He quickly corrected himself and made a self-deprecating joke later about the error.

I can relate to these mistakes. I was recently accused of mispronouncing names. (A fellow podcast host mentioned this in a review of The Public Speaker podcast.) Frankly, I was annoyed at the accusation because I go to considerable lengths to find out how to pronounce any name that I'm unsure of.  

I will first check the person's website or contact the person directly to ensure proper pronunciation. Next, I look on YouTube for interviews where the person’s name is pronounced.  In fact, there are channels that do exactly this—they pronounce names and words, so usually you can find out how to pronounce a name pretty quickly. Sometimes the name mispronunciation occurs because there is just no way to find out ahead of time (keep in mind, I record the show every week). 

Pronouncing Names Correctly Is Important

I had a difficult last name growing up—Boehm (pronounced Bame with a long a, as in "rhymes with fame"). No one, and I mean no one, ever got it right. In fact, most teachers wouldn’t even try—they would read first and last names, and when they got to me, they would simply say “Lisa.” I never minded that they got it wrong, but I was a kid, not a professional whose name was important to my career. 

Voice actor Stephanie Ciccarelli says pronouncing someone’s name correctly is important because our names have significance. When your name is mispronounced, it feels disrespectful. Imagine knowing you’re about to be honored at the Oscar ceremony and then hearing an unrecognizable name instead. Even if it’s a mistake, it can hurt.

Advice to Awards Ceremony Presenters

The responsibility for correct pronunciation of a difficult name falls on both parties. If your name is important to your profession, then you need to proactively help people with it. Your website should have the pronunciation spelled out or voice recorded for playback. If you are up for an award (and you're not a Hollywood celebrity), send the phonetic pronunciation and a recording to the host or to the organizing committee ahead of time.  

The organizing staff also has a responsibility to be sure they have that information. If a participant doesn’t offer it, they should request it. Staff should check all name pronunciations and the phonetic pronunciation should be available for the host. Particularly difficult names should be accompanied by audio for practice, because sometimes that's the only way to get it right.

Ultimately mistakes are going to happen—it’s inevitable—so each person should graciously correct a mispronunciation and the mistake-maker should politely apologize. And if you can have a good laugh about it—all the better.  

This is Lisa Boehm Marshall—that's right, my middle name is Boehm, B-o-e-h-m. Passionate about communication; your success is my business. 

If you want even more success in your life,  I invite you to read my latest book, Smart Talk and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk: Inspiring Conversations with Exceptional People.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.