Because I speak a lot about learning and memory to companies, one of the biggest questions I’m asked is, “How do I remember the names of all the people I meet and work with?” It’s a quandary we all know too well. A big reason for this difficulty is that someone’s name is typically independent of anything else you know about them. So, you meet someone at a networking event, and you remember where they work, their job title, and how long they have lived in town, but you don’t remember their name.
I address this in a section in my book, Smart Thinking. It involves these four steps:
First, you have to pay attention. All of us have had the experience of being introduced to someone and forgetting their name moments later. If you don’t pay attention to what people are saying when they give you their name, then you have no hope of being able to remember it.
Next, it is important to find a way to connect people’s names to something else about them—their height, hair, smile, etc. Your memory for information is improved when the knowledge you acquire is interconnected with other knowledge. So, think about how the name relates to other things you have learned about the person (Tina from Chicago), as well as to what they look like (green-eyed Greg). That way, when you see the person again or think about an aspect of what you know about them, you will also be reminded of their name.
Repeat their name
As part of this process, you should also find a reason to use the person’s name soon after hearing it. There is a phenomenon in the psychology of memory called the generation effect, in which information that you produce for yourself is remembered better than information you hear or read. If you find a reason to use someone’s name, it will improve your memory for it. Of course, you need to do something a little socially awkward, because you don’t generally use someone’s name when they are standing in front of you, but even a “Great to meet you” is helpful.
Ask if you forget
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that if you have forgotten the name of someone you just met, there is a good chance they have also forgotten your name. So, it is fine to say to someone that you have forgotten their name and to ask them to repeat it. Indeed, the other person will probably be relieved that you asked, because they will want you to repeat yours.
Of course, if you do ask someone to repeat their name, you’d better pay attention.