How to Remember Names

After a conference I recently chaired, a woman came up to me and asked, “How on earth do you remember everyone’s names?!”

Truth is I don’t. But I make a concerted effort to do so and that’s the difference. How many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, I’m terrible with names.” 

As self-fulfilling prophesies go, this may be one of the easiest.  If you tell yourself you’re not good at remembering names, you probably won’t be.

I, on the other hand, am good with names.  I’m not bragging here. I really am. I may not be great. I do occasionally have to be reminded of a name. But I am good. Because, like I said, I work at it.

At the conference I mentioned, I was introduced to dozens of people in rapid succession. All people matter, so every name is important.

I remembered them all. Especially, Jayson, the technician, to whom I was introduced during the set-up, long before the event began.  He’s the one who controls the lights, the sound, my microphone. He’s one important guy!” 

I don’t deploy Darren Brown-style “memory palaces” or other fancy mental gymnastics to partner a person’s name with a rhyme or an object.  Like “Fancy – Nancy” or “Burt in the Red Shirt.”  No way.  I am not that clever nor quickly creative.

But, simply, here is what I do.  I find it really works.

  1. FOCUS: Slow down and really focus on the person’s name. Chances are, when you’re introduced to someone, you may have other things on your mind.  Turn that off for a moment. Make the moment matter.  Genuinely look at the person’s face and let their name sink in.
  2. REPEAT. Silently say the name over and over in your head while you’re looking at them. I’m not talking a mindless repetitive mantra here, say it to yourself in a thoughtful way.  Find meaning in the name. Is it a name of someone you’ve met before, perhaps a relative or a dear friend?  Jerry happens to not only be the name of the technician, it’s also the name of my step-dad for whom I have enormous love and admiration.  That helped the memory stick. 
  3. SPEAK: Say the name back to the person.  Don’t let yourself off easy, with a simple, “Nice to meet you.”  Add “Nice to meet you, fill-in-the-person’s-name-here.” Of course, you don’t want to over-use the person’s name as an obvious measure to remember, but here is a great opportunity.  
  4. LEARN: If it’s an unfamiliar name, take time to try to learn it properly; don’t simply nod and gloss over the introduction. In today’s global marketplace, this is especially important.  Here in Ireland, I am learning that names written in Irish, “Caoimhe” for instance, are said differently than I may first have thought. I also do a lot of work in Africa and am learning a range of great new names there as well.  The wife’s name of a business associate in Nigeria, for instance, is Olaseyi.  It is pronounced “Oh-lah-SHAY-ee” and it also has a lovely lowering in pitch on the final syllable. 

Where does your work take you? Wherever you go, the point is not to create a fuss about a new name, but to demonstrate your sincere interest in expanding your horizons –  embracing the new – and getting it right.  This can build rapport with the person in addition to solidifying your recollection of that person’s name.  

  1. ENQUIRE: Take a moment to ask a question of the new person. Try to learn something about them.  In your mind, repeat their story along with their name. Rather than overloading your memory, this gives the name a story to stick to which makes it easier for you to recall the name when you need it.

Take time to remember names.  It’s a good place to start to build a friendship.  Business is built on relationships.

Don’t tell yourself or others that you’re no good at remembering names. It’s a throw away comment that doesn’t get you off the hot seat.  Take a breath and discipline yourself. Try. You can remember names.  

Now go meet the people at those holiday parties you’ll be attending.

Happy holidays.