As simple as it sounds, learning names and committing them to memory has the potential to set you apart, for better and for worse. This includes all sides of the relationship: as an applicant, client, manager, student, and teacher. Many introductory business classes and business books geared towards growing interpersonal skills will spend at least one lecture/chapter on the importance of learning names. Take, for instance, Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. According to Carnegie, Napoleon the Third who was the Emperor of France and nephew of the great Napoleon, made it a life goal to remember names:
If the person was someone of importance, Napoleon went to even further pains. As soon as His Royal Highness was alone, he wrote the name down on a piece of paper, looked at it, concentrated on it, fixed it securely in his mind, and then tore up the paper. In this way, he gained an eye impression of the name as well as an ear impression.
Nearly 150 years after the death of Napoleon the Third, remembering names remains an important skill to grow and maintain. This leaves us with a few questions: First, why is it so important to remember names? Second, why do I (or people I work with) have such a hard time committing names to memory if it is a basic skill everyone should have? And finally, what are some exercises or tools I can use to grow my skill of name learning?
Let’s start with the first: why knowing someone’s name is so important.
YOUR FAVORITE WORD: (YOUR NAME HERE)
At a party, we can hear our name rise up amidst the background of conversation, even if it is spoken across the room. Many times when we hear our name being spoken, it sounds louder than other words--even if it was in a hushed whisper. Why is this? Most of us have associated our “self” with one name since we were young, so when someone new remembers it, our entire lifespan has been validated. It’s really that important. By remembering someone’s name, it shows the person that you are listening to them and taking an interest in what they have to say.
Now that we have covered why it is so important, let’s move to the second question: why names are so hard to remember.
MEMORY AND ASSOCIATIONS: WE REMEMBER IN DETAILS
If you have a hard time remembering someone’s name, but can remember details about the person with ease, you are not alone. In one study (Cohen & Faulkner), participants were introduced to fake names and biographies. Later on, the participants were tested to see what they could recall. Here is what they remembered:
First names: 31%
Last names: 30%
Hobbies, where someone lives, and personal details are stickier in our memory than names. This is because details we can relate to our own personal story create quicker (automatic) associations. It would be easier if we all had names that were descriptions of our characteristics (this was more common in past civilizations), and today we still do this in informal settings though nicknames. This is one reason why nicknames are stickier than real names. Sorry :-/
Finally, let’s move on to growing this skill with some tips and exercises you can practice.
MAKING ROOM FOR ASSOCIATIONS
Remembering names is tough because names are typically words we have little emotional context for, and therefore they are hard to form new associations with. However, all is not lost. Below are some tips to increase word associations and remember names. Some of my examples may sound silly, but don’t be too hard on them until you try them out. Don’t be shy: no one will see your associations so feel free to make them as funny or awkward as you like.
Say “New-Person’s” name as soon as they introduce themselves to you. For example:
Megan: “Nice to meet you, I’m Megan.”
Andrew: “Hi, Megan, my name is Andrew.”
Andrew: “Hi, I’m Andrew.”
Megan: “Megan, nice to meet you.”
Andrew: “It’s nice to meet you too, Megan.”
Use the person’s name (again) as soon as you can in the conversation. This sounds hard, but with practice you will discover spaces in normal conversation where you can slip in their name. Try this: work an example of a concept you are explaining into the conversation with “new-name”. Make the new-name person a character in the example. This will help you learn the name by association and engage new-name in the concept you are talking about. It’s a win-win.
End your encounter with “New-Name” by using their name. For example: “It was really nice meeting you Megan, have a great night.”
Create an association with a detail you will remember about the person. For example: Megan from Minnesota. Two M’s.
You can create an image association with the person you are talking to. If you forget the person’s name, the hope is that the image will jog your memory and the name will pop up with the association. For example: Jason is talking about organic food. I am going to create a mental image of Jason in a kitchen surrounded by organic greens. He is cutting up veggies and putting them in a bowl for a salad. He pours a dressing on the mix and on the side of the bottle is his name: Jason’s dressing. Jason sure likes pouring Jason’s dressing on Jason’s organic salad. Come on Jason, that’s enough Jason dressing on Jason’s salad.
You can form a new association by playing off of one you already have. If you meet someone who has the same name as someone else you are familiar with, you can make an association with a name replacement. The easiest way to do this is to pull out similar features of the new person and the person you already know. For example: both Megans like volleyball. They also both have green eyes.
Think about how the name is spelled. Think about each letter in your head while you spell it out. An easy way to slip the name back into the conversation right away is to ask for clarification of the spelling. This is best used for names with multiple spellings so it doesn’t seem forced. For example: “Megan, nice to meet you. Is that M-E-G-A-N or M-E-G-H-A-N?”
Have a genuine interest in the person. Too often it is “in one ear and out the other”-- especially when you are at an event where you are meeting a lot of new people. If you can calm yourself down and be present with each individual you talk with, their ideas will stick with you and you will be more likely to recall what you talked about and with whom.
If you do forget someone’s name, it’s not the end of the world. If you want to continue the conversation, a sly way to get their name is to ask for New-Friend’s email address or open up a new contact in your phone and have them fill it out. If asking for an email address or phone number is not appropriate in the context of the conversation, it’s better to be honest than call someone the wrong name. You can say: I’m really enjoying our conversation. I had a whirlwind of a day and my brain is a little foggy. Can you remind me of your name? And chances are, they may need a second introduction as well.
If you are interested in learning more about memory, check out the book Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. In the book, the author recounts his visit to the 2005 U.S.A. Memory competition as a journalist for Slate and, after training for less than a year with a few international memory gurus, he becomes the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion.
Andrew J. Wilt