Name-Dropping: Not just pointless—annoying, too

Name-dropping is a fantastic way to make sure people stop listening to you. But—wait—that’s not what you want? Oh. Well. Then stop dropping names.

Even if you’re not dropping a whole list of, say, client names—and we talked about avoiding lists just the other day—even dropping one name without substantive context in turns people off.

I wish I knew someone who could explain this to you. Let’s ask my friend Jack Dorsey, founder of both Twitter and Square. No, I do not actually know Jack Dorsey. But I do know how to search the internet. And a Google search of “name-dropping annoying” took me to this email he sent to his employees at Square. Apparently they were too young and too enthusiastic to realize how pointless the habit is. So he spelled it out for them:

“Using someone else’s name to sell an idea does two things:

  1. It diminishes your authority.
  2. It diminishes the idea’s merit.”

Dorsey sums up everything I have to say about name-dropping in this one lovely sentence:

“Authority derives naturally from merit, not the other way around.”

That deserves repeating: Authority derives naturally from merit.

In other words…

It’s not just about who, it’s about what and why

While you may feel super-special to have worked with 487 of the Fortune 500 companies, listing them does not show us why you deserved to get that work. What did you do? What problems did you identify and/or solve? How did the client feel about your work?

Now, please don’t answer those questions 487 times—that’s as bad a list. Maybe even worse, because it’s longer. Look for ways to categorize the names you want to drop:

“I’ve written for a number of leading business executives, including Warren Buffett.”

And then I might write a bit about the work I did with him. Certainly Mr. Buffett is not the only “leading business executive” I’ve worked with. But he is the one that arouses the most curiosity when I talk with prospective clients. Boil down the list to the most interesting elements—and if you must cite more than one, force yourself to stop at three.

Or you might group clients by industry or product:

“I’ve written for companies that make everything from consumer products to steak dinners. And some that have made waves. The New York Times praised the honesty of the annual report I wrote for Bankers Trust in the aftermath of its derivatives scandal.”

As in the Buffett example, I’ve named one company. It’s perfect if I were pitching to a financial services-oriented client. If I were pitching a nonprofit, I’d swap out the last two sentences for something that would better resonate with them.

And that’s the key. Whether you’re writing an article or a speech, you want the things you say to resonate with your audience. If you want to reach an audience wider than your mother, or that hottie you’re trying to pick up in a bar, that list won’t do the trick.

Give us context, and we’ll give you our attention.