June 15, 2011

Money & Career, Networking

How to Remember a Person’s Name (And What to Do When You Can’t)

You’re at a business convention chatting with a colleague, when up walks a man, the head of some major department, a guy you know you’ve met before. “Hey there, Sam!” he says as he shakes your hand. Then he waits for you to introduce him to your colleague. The only problem? You cannot for the life of you remember his name. Awkwardness ensues. And a potential business deal evaporates.

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The key to being a charismatic gentleman is making others feel important. And what better way to make someone feel important than by remembering their name? Remembering someone’s name tells them that they were special enough to have made a real impression on you. And everybody wants to feel special. Thus there are few better, and easier, ways to build rapport then to answer, “You probably don’t remember my name,” with, “Of course I do!”

And saying someone’s name is a powerful persuasion tool. It makes people feel at ease and comfortable. Legendary success writer and Mr. Charisma himself, Dale Carnegie, once said that “a person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

But if you’re like me, remembering names isn’t your strong suit. I can remember faces and I can remember names, but I often have trouble putting the two together.

There’s actually a perfectly good reason for this common human foible.

Our brains process faces differently than other bits of information, including names. A study done in 1971 showed that we have a much easier time recalling faces than we do abstract ideas like letters, numbers, and yes, even names.

But fear not, aspiring gentleman. With a little bit of savvy and know-how, you can overcome this shortcoming and become a master at remembering names. You can be the man who walks into a party and works the room like a pro.

Today we’ll discuss some of the tried and true methods for remembering people’s names, throw in some ways to take advantage of new technology to aid in this process, and end by outlining how to deal with a situation where your best intentions fail and someone’s name slips your mind.

How to Remember a Person’s Name

Commit to listening and remembering. Most of us are lousy listeners. In social situations, we fall prey to conversational narcissism and are always waiting for a moment we can jump in and add our two cents. If you’re concentrating on what you’re about to say when someone introduces themselves, their name will go in one ear and out the other just like that. If you aren’t intently tuned in during that tiny window, the opportunity to learn their name passes in mere seconds and you’re sunk.

Before going into any social situation where you’ll be meeting new people, commit yourself to being as attentive as possible during introductions. Just having that extra mental focus can go a long way in helping you remember names.

Repeat early, repeat often. When you first meet someone, repeat their name as soon as you learn it. That will help sear the person’s name into your memory. Say something like, “Hi Jill, nice to meet you!” or “Pleasure to meet you, Jill.”

After that initial repeat, use the person’s name as much as you can throughout the conversation without coming off as a cheesy used car salesman. “Where are you from, Jill?” “How’s the weather in Toledo this time of year, Jill?” “How do you know the bride and groom, Jill?” You get the idea. Again, be natural and don’t over do it.

To really burn the name into that noggin of yours, make sure to end your conversation by repeating the person’s name one final time. “Great meeting you, Jill. I hope we can stay in touch.”

Not only does this technique help you remember someone’s name, it also makes you seem charming. As we mentioned, people love the sound of their own name.

Have them spell it out. Hearing a person spell their name can help you remember it, especially if it’s an unusual name. If it’s a common name, but has different spelling variations, ask the person which variation he or she uses. For example, if a person’s name is Bryan, you can ask, “So is that Bryan with a y or Brian with an i? He answers, “It’s Bryan with a y.” Now whenever you see that person, you can think, “That’s Bryan with a y.”

Use a mnemonic device. If someone has an especially unusual or a foreign name, even having them spell it out won’t help much. In that case, try to break their name up into real words that sound like the syllables in their name. Katie Couric famously revealed that she remembered how to pronounce the name of the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by thinking, “I’m a dinner jacket.” This technique is highly effective. After reading Couric’s comment, I have never forgotten his name or how to say it.

Visualize the person’s name on their forehead. As soon as you hear the person’s name, visualize their name stamped in big block letters across their forehead. Keep that mental picture on their forehead the entire time that person is in your presence.

Associate the person’s name with an easy to remember picture. After hearing a person’s name, make it as tangible as possible to you by associating their name with a picture. Be as creative as you want with this. There’s no wrong or right way to do it. The association just needs to be meaningful to you. For example, if a person’s name is Leif Bernstein you might imagine Papa Bernstein Bear holding a big leaf.

Associate the image that represents the person’s name to an outstanding facial feature on the person. Again, most people can remember faces and names, they just have trouble remembering the two together. Here’s how to fix that. Take that visual representation you made of the person’s name and associate it with an outstanding physical feature that the person has.

Let’s use our example of Leif Bernstein. Our picture for his name was Papa Bernstein Bear holding a big leaf. Now we need to associate that image with a feature of Mr. Bernstein. Let’s say Bernstein has big ears. You can imagine Papa Bernstein Bear with huge Ross Perot ears while holding a leaf. Your association can be different–just use whatever works for you.

Takes notes. If you’re a salesman or in another profession that involves the frequent and vital making of new contacts, be sure to carry a pocket notebook with you. After meeting someone new, write down his or her name in your notebook along with some notes about who they are and what they do. Before a meeting where you may see them again, take a moment to review your notes.

Practice, practice, practice. Remembering names is a skill that takes practice to develop, so put yourself in situations where you’ll have to learn new names. Use these techniques as much as you can.

Tech Tools to Help You Remember Names

In addition to using mnemonic devices, there are several online tools you can use to help remember the names of people you’ve met. These are especially handy if you haven’t seen the person in awhile and you know you’re going to be seeing them at an event and want to make sure you can put a name with a face.

Facebook. Facebook puts a picture of the person right next to their name. How easy is that? I plan on reviewing Facebook before I go to my 10 year high school reunion this summer. I don’t want to have long-lost high school friends come and give me a hug while I say, “Hey you! It’s really you!”

Twitter. Yeah, I Twitter. [Insert obligatory remark about how Twitter isn't manly] I’ve found it to be a useful networking and name remembering tool. When I meet a new person at an event, I’ll often check to see if they have a Twitter account. If they do, I’ll follow them. People usually have their name (or some variation of it) as their username and a picture of themselves as their Twitter profile pic. Anytime that person tweets something, I see their name and face. Bam. Name review.

Rapportive. Rapportive is an awesome little browser plugin for gmail. Rapportive shows you a detailed description of the person that you’re having an email conversation with. If available, Rapportive will show a picture of the person. This has come in handy when I’ve met someone in person briefly, but then engaged in email conversations with them later. Every time I open an email from them, I see their bright shiny face. Name with face burned into brain.

What to Do When You Forget a Name

No matter how hard you try, you’re bound to forget a person’s name every now and then. If you do, just politely and apologetically say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name. What is it again?” Simple. Ask them as soon as you realize you’ve forgotten their name. The more time you spend together, the more offended they’ll be when they realize you don’t know their name.

But having to ask for someone’s name again can make you look bad. I mean, you’re basically telling the person, “You weren’t important enough for me to remember you.” If your memory fails you, and hey, we’ve all been there, here’s how to deal with it as smoothly as possible in several different situations.

When you part ways.

If you realize as you part ways with someone that you can’t remember their name, ask if they have a business or calling card you can take home with you. This is great, because not only do you now know their name without having to ask again, you’ll always have something you can take out and review at home.

When you see someone you’ve met before.

If you encounter somebody you know you’ve met before, but you can’t put a name with their face, don’t guess their name if you’re not sure. For some reason, having someone say your name wrong always feels more offensive and noticeable than simply being asked for your name again.

So if you can’t remember someone’s name, you have a couple of options. The first is a little trick I’ve used several times with success.

You simply ask the person, “Excuse me, what was your name again?”

The person will likely respond with their first name.

You then respond with a charming laugh and a smile, and say, “Oh no, I met your last name.”

People seem to be more forgiving of someone forgetting their last name–not so much with first names. With this technique you’ll get the person’s first name without them knowing you had forgotten it. And if you forgot their last name, now you have that too.

Of course this little trick can backfire if they respond by asking, “My first or last name?”

If you’re not a gambling man, you can simply walk up, stick out your hand, and say your name. “Brett. We met at the Christmas party last year.” They’ll likely respond in kind by saying their name. Chances are, he or she had forgotten your name too! By taking the initiative, you remove their burden of anxiety as well. Very gentlemanly.

When you’re making introductions.

What if you’re standing with a friend, and someone walks up and waits for you to introduce them, but you can’t remember their name? Say to the person, “Have you met my friend, Mike?” The person will then hopefully say to Mike, “No I haven’t. Nice to meet you. I’m Luke.”

Alright. Now it’s your turn. What tricks do you use to remember people’s names? Share them with us in the comments.


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