How I remember names

I did a workshop for a client about a week ago. 21 people came. After 20 minutes I knew everyone’s name. A few people commented on it, asking me what my trick was or saying that they could never do that.

If don’t have a lot of time, my short answer to “how do you remember names” is always “there’s no trick to it; it’s just a simple trick”.

If I have time, I give my long answer, which is can seem like a non-answer.

When I was in 3rd year undergrad, I had a lecturer, Helen, who knew everyone’s names in an 80 person class before the mid-semester break. When I was in 4th year undergrad, I tutored for Helen and I asked her what the trick was. She said that the trick to remembering people’s names is using people’s names.

In practice it can work a few different ways. Basically, you ask someone their name, repeat it back to them and then use it every subsequent time you interact with them. In a lecture it can sound a bit like this:

Ben: Who can tell me how Don Norman defines affordances?
…hands go up…
Ben: yes, you. Can you tell me your name?
Kim: Kim.
Ben: Thank you, Kim. How does Norman define affordances?
Kim: some generally correct answer
Ben: Great! Thanks, Kim. Now, Kim’s answer is correct but is only half of Norman’s definition. What’s the other half? Yes, you. Can you tell me your name?

In a brief back and forth, I’ve said Kim’s name four times.

You also need to give the person you’re speaking to a level of almost-too-much undivided attention as you’re speaking with them. As they’re talking you’re noticing their distinguishing features, who they’re sitting next to, and so on. The name, the interaction and the attention you give the person lets you build enough associations that you have more than one way to match name to face. The next time you see Kim, you have more than one way to get back to “Kim”. When I’m trying to remember someone’s name, my thought process goes like this:

That is the person who gave the first half of the answer about affordances and they were sitting next to that guy with the good hair last week and that person is…Kim!

The point is to create a story about each person. The real answer is there’s no trick. It’s practice and effort. You need to practice the back and forth enough to make it seem natural.

There’s also a large amount of being unafraid of asking people their name again. When you need to do that, you say, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten your name. Can you remind me?” You need to be even more unafraid of getting someone’s name wrong at least once. When that happens, you say, “oh, I’m so sorry. Can you please tell me your name?” And then you work really hard to never forget that person’s name ever again.

In yesterday’s workshop, I picked up about half of the names as people came in to the room. As each subsequent person came in, I went back over the names of everyone else I had just met. I had a colleague with me and so I also made a point of introducing him to each new person, which gave me more opportunities to use people’s names. Because I’d seen the invitation list, which had people’s job titles, I could ask them for that piece of information and use that to create a story about them even before they sat down:

that’s Xavier who is a master plumber and he’s talking with Tom who is an art dealer.

Then, because I’d pre-assigned groups for the workshop activities, and I had some recollection of who was in which group, I had even more information to use to remember, or deduce, people’s names. For example, if I knew that this group was Andrew, Bob, Clare, David and Edward and I could put faces to Andrew, Bob, Clare and Edward then I could be pretty sure that the last person was David.

And that’s how I remember names.

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