It’s an experience we’ve all had. We’re at a party, a conference, or a reunion. Up walks someone that we know we know…but we can’t for the life of us remember their name. It’s right there, at the edge of our memory, but it won’t come to us. We mumble an apology, ask for their name, and carry on with the conversation.
But we feel bad because of it. Even though it really doesn’t have a massive negative effect on our relationships, most of us are really afraid of forgetting other people’s names in social situations. We dread that moment of staring at someone and drawing a blank. Maybe it’s because we don’t like it when others forget our name and we don’t want to make others feel that way. Maybe it’s because have higher expectations of ourselves and we’re upset when we fail.
Whatever the reason, a lot of us use it as an excuse to not network. Why make new connections with people if we can’t even remember their names? It seems like a silly reason to not reach out, but many of us don’t need much of an excuse.
It’s Your Recall that’s the Problem
Let’s get past that excuse. You might not become a memory wizard, but there are really simple steps that will dramatically your ability to remember names and require little effort or time.
It’s easy to think that the ability to remember names is an intrinsic attribute – one that you either have or your don’t. I’ve found that the opposite is true. Remembering names is a skill, and that means that it can be improved with practice and focus.
The first thing to realize is that it’s almost always a problem of recalling, not remembering, someone’s name. In other words, the person’s name is in your subconscious memory. The information has been filed away for future use, but it won’t do any good if you can’t recall it. The trick is to be able to bring the name up into your conscious thinking where you can do something with it.
The first step then, is to develop tools to help you recall the names of people that you meet. This is where mnemonic devices come in. These are basically games you can play with your mind that help you remember and recall other pieces of unrelated information. For example, if you are a musician, you learned the phrase “Every good boy does fine” to help you remember the notes on a treble staff. You can use these same brain games to help you recall names.
There Isn’t a “Perfect” Technique
You’ve probably come across a number of different tips and mnemonic devices designed to help recall names; some might have worked for you, and some might not have worked. That’s OK, there is no single, foolproof way to remember names that works for everyone. Because we all process information differently, you have to find out which ones work for you.
A lot of this will be determined by whether you are a person who processes information better visually or audibly (by hearing). Neither is right or wrong, it’s just that we are each wired differently. If you are a person who normally stores information by hearing, and you try to use a visual tool, you’ll struggle more than necessary.
Below are listed ten different tools, tips, and tricks that you can use to help recall the names of people that you meet in social settings, both professionally and personally. Experiment to see which ones work best for you in different situations. Remember, the best tool is one that works for you.
Prime your Mind to Remember
1. Never say or think “I’m bad with names”.
Consider this a “meta-tool” that makes all of the other ones more effective. I’ve often heard it said even before someone learns my name for the first time. It’s a preemptive excuse. Basically, when you say “I’m bad with names”, you are saying “I’m not planning on remembering your name. So when I ask you again later I won’t feel as bad, because I’ve already told you I’m bad with names.”
The real irony lies in the fact that we’re often too busy internally saying that we’re bad with names to actually pay attention and listen to their name. Also, our mind takes the cues we give it. If we say that we’re bad with names, it makes sure that we follow up on that: it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Try saying, “I’m great with names” every time you find yourself wanting to say you can’t remember.
2. Always be mentally present when introductions are made.
In almost every instance when I couldn’t recall a person’s name, it’s because I wasn’t paying attention when they first said it. My mind was wandering and I was thinking about something completely different: what I was going to say, what I thought of their necktie, where I wanted to go out for dinner later. When you aren’t paying attention, it’s pretty obvious why you can’t recall a person’s name; you didn’t catch it the first time. Be sure to focus in on both the person and their name when you are first introduced.
Visual Tools for Recalling Names
3. Look at their face while internally repeating their name.
The mind has an incredible ability to remember faces. We can pick a face out of a crowd of strangers, even if we’ve only met them once before. Our brains are wired to recall visual cues very easily. This is why many people say “I’m good with faces, but not with names.” Use that to your advantage by taking a moment or two to look at their face while repeating their name in your head. This is a powerful mnemonic device because the visual part of your mind will recall the face very easily, and the information about their name will tag along for the ride.
4. Attach a mental image to their name.
The easiest way to do this is to look at their name tag (if they’re wearing one) while repeating their name in your head. This is pretty old school but it works. Like the previous mnemonic device, you are attaching their name to a visual cue. If they aren’t wearing a name tag, you can pick a part of their appearance to attach their name to, or you can create an make believe image in your head.
For example, if the person’s name is Steve Smith, imagine the picture of a blacksmith working and attach his name to it. If they give you a business card, anchor their name to the visual image of their card, or to the logo on their card.
5. Ask them to spell out their name.
This is especially useful for someone that has a complicated name. In many ways, you are creating an imaginary name tag and “looking” at it with your mind’s eye, just like in the previous tip. I often ask someone to spell their name and as they speak, I type it out in my head. This also works well when you meet someone whose name has many alternate spellings, like Eric (Erik/Erick/Arick) or Jennifer (Jenny/Jennie/Jenni/Geni/Gini). They’ll be happy you asked. They are probably tired of people misspelling and mispronouncing their name, and you’ll have a visual tag.
6. Write down something on paper to associate with them.
This is a great tool to use after a networking event or large social gathering. Take all of the business cards you’ve gathered, or just grab a piece of paper, and jot down a quick note about each person. It could be a common interest or a shared home town. The important thing is that you are writing and therefore “seeing” this note, which helps imprint it into your active memory.
Auditory Tools that Imprint a Name
7. Use their name immediately.
One of the ways to increase recall is use a piece of information as soon as possible. Instead of relegating it to your passive memory, using someone’s name brings it into active memory. A simple way to do this is to repeat their name back to them when you learn it, e.g. “It’s nice to meet you Angela, I’m David.” Another great way to do this in social settings is to introduce them to others. e.g., “Hi Bill, have you met Angela from XYZ Consulting”.
8. Repeat their name to yourself three times.
When you hear a catchy pop song once, it doesn’t really stick in your head. When you hear it multiple times, all of sudden you can’t stop humming the song. In the same way, if you mentally verbalize a person’s name three or more times when you first meet them, you give yourself the opportunity to “hear” it over and over. This imprints it into your audio memory and will allow for better recall. By the way, the emphasis here is on “to yourself”. Don’t start saying their name over and over, you’ll just creep them out.
9. Associate a fact/phrase/or word with their name.
This is the audio equivalent of putting an image with their name. People who prefer to process their information through hearing can have great success repeating a mnemonic phrase in their head to associate with the name of the person they’ve just met. It can be a simple as hearing the the chorus of “Jesse’s Girl” by Rick Springfield if the person’s name is Jesse; or maybe the first line of the “I Have a Dream” speech if his name is Martin. It doesn’t even have to be a logical connection, it just has to be a memory shortcut that works for you – that’s the textbook definition of a mnemonic device.
The Best Last Ditch Tool
10. Introduce the person to someone else.
When you run into someone and you can’t recall their name, use this simple tool. If you have friend or colleague with you whose name you do know, simply say “I’d like you to meet my friend Jim.” Then pause and let your friend Jim fill in the sentence, “…and what’s your name.” It’s simple, and it works really well.
Most Importantly: Relax
All of these tools will help you recall the names of people that you meet at networking events, cocktail receptions, and everywhere else you might meet someone for the first time; but what if you still forget someone’s name? Is the world going to spontaneously burst into flames?! Of course not. Relax and don’t worry about forgetting a name here and there – it’s going to happen. When you do forget someone’s name, you don’t have to hide in shame.
Don’t get flummoxed. Even the people who are fantastic at remembering names forget one here and there. The more new people you meet, by the way, the more likely you are to forget a name. It goes with the territory.
In the end, it’s pretty much understood that we meet so many people in our highly mobile and interconnected society that we aren’t going to remember everyone’s name. It’s perfectly OK to say, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t recall your name. Could you help me out.” They’ll be more than happy to help, and heck, they might have forgotten your name.