Awesome Conferences

Memory tip: How to remember names

[This post is part of a series on improving your memory.]

People say they are bad at remembering names so often it is trite. The truth is that everyone is bad at it so stating this fact out loud is like reminding people "I breathe air." You don't naturally remember someone's name, you have to work at it. People that are good at remembering names employ various tricks, i.e. they work at it.

There is one fact you must know to improve your memory: Remembering something is a two-step process. First you must have the information. Then you have to commit it to memory. It may sound obvious but if you don't have the information you can't commit it to memory. However it is not obvious is that these are two distinct, separate, steps.

Most of the time we don't do the first step, but think the problem is a failure of the second step. It is only common sense: if we are bad at recalling something it must be because we didn't commit it to memory! However, the way the brain works is rarely logical. The truth is that that first step is what gets botched. We didn't hear the name in the first place!

Most of the time when you are introduced to someone you don't hear their name. You are in a noisy room, you aren't fully paying attention, are distracted, or you just weren't ready. Sometimes you believe you heard the name but what you are thinking is is "Amy's Husband" not "Matthew".

Sometimes the names just fly by too fast. Someone introduces many people at once, rattling off, "This is Joe, Mark, Mary, Shankar and Sara" so quickly you don't have a fighting chance. Your neck isn't turning fast enough to see who is who.

Tip 1: Help other people learn names by introducing people slowly. "This is Joe [pause], Mark [pause], Mary [pause]...". Better yet, let each person introduce themself. Each person will pause as the person you are introducing them to acknowledges each person.

Tip 2: Don't let the conversation continue until you know the person's name.

There is a difference between the audio waves colliding with your ear-drum and actually knowing what the person said.

A file transfer protocol doesn't know the data got to the destination until the sender receives a valid checksum. You don't know that you know something without checking that you know it.

Literally stop the conversation until you are sure you've heard the person's name. You can do this without others realizing what you are doing and without it feeling abrupt. (Side note: It may feel abrupt but others will see it as you as being conscientious and caring enough to make the effort to remember their names. That's a compliment to them and makes them feel good.)

There are two ways I do it without anyone realizing it. Usually I simply ask a question about the name, such as what is the first letter. If I know the first letter, I'm pretty sure that I've heard the name. I always phrase it the same way, "Oh, is that spelled with an 'M'?" (or whatever the first letter is). Sure, there isn't any other way to spell "MARY" but they'll see you as being conscientious. For less common names I ask the person how their name is spelled. Either way, the name is now verified.

At work I can use a different technique because we all wear ID badges. I read their name off the badge. The problem is that people's badges are usually down at their waist and it looks funny to bow and look at their pelvis. What does work is to say, "I'm a visual learner, may I see your badge?" Then I read their name and thank them. Luckily I work with geeks and saying something like "I'm a visual learner" sounds astute. I wouldn't use this technique at, say, they gym.

Step 2: Commit it to memory

Now that we know the information we want to remember we have to commit it to memory. The secret here is "repetition" and "mnemonics."

Repetition is powerful. Sometimes just saying the name to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y in your head a few times might trigger your brain to remember it.

A mnemonic is a symbol or thought that will trigger your memory about a subject. A mnemonic not have to be complicated. Just associate something, anything, with their name. The first letter is a "C" and her face looks like a "C". That will stick in your mind and remind you of C the next time you see her, which is enough to jog your memory and recall her name is "Chris."

The reverse often works. Her face doesn't look like a C, well that's just weird enough to make you remember the letter "C" when you see her. The beauty of mnemonics is that they work even when they fail. If every time you see someone you remember the time you tried to associate "C" with the shape of her face, and failed, you've just remembered the letter "C", which reminds you that her name is "Chris". It worked!

By the way... Never ever ever tell someone the mnemonic you use to remember someone's name. Really. Don't. There's no way it will end well. Fred doesn't want to know that you remember is name because his eyebrows are furry; Barry doesn't want to know that you think his nose is big, like Barbara Streisand, and both start with "B"; Neither Laurence nor Bob wants wants to know that you remember who is who because Bob has the shorter name and he's shorter than Laurence (or that Bob is the ugly one, which is ironic because "B" stands for "Bob" and "Beauty"). Keep your mnemonics to yourself.

I hope you found this tip useful. If you run into me at a conference and I remember your name, please don't ask for the mnemonic I used: I'm just reading it off your conference badge.

[My longer blog posts are usually on Mondays and Wednesdays. Please check back or subscribe to my RSS feed.]

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Soft Skills

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3 Comments | Leave a comment

I have to disagree with the statement that everyone has exactly the same difficulty. I've faithfully tried many of the tricks advised but I've yet to find one that is at all reliable for me. I do use mnemonics as they're not zero-value (they sometimes work) but it's not infrequent that the result is me remembering everything of the mnemonic but the name.

I have found a few methods that are effective but they're mostly so for the same reason I have no desire to repeat the experiences.

And re-reading the post I realize the contexts are different so my comment really is about a situation that is only related - ability to recall a person's name when that person is not present.

Some other tips from the a competitive US Memory Champion. (Memory competitions? Really? Yep. Who knew?)

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