How do I remember names more effectively?

Posted on: April 21, 2009

Whenever I lead or deliver a training session on networking, the issue that always comes up (particularly amongst the legal profession) is “But I am really useless at remembering people’s names”. I have long thought that one of the reasons so many people dislike networking situations is that they are afraid that they will not remember people who remember them – and fear the obvious embarrassment that follows. All the books on business and networking effectiveness and many books considering general success mention that people like to hear their own names – we are hard-wired to pay attention when our name is used. Dale Carnegie who wrote one of my best loved books “How to win friends and influence people” said that “a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest most important sound in any language.”

When you use someone’s name you are saying “You are important to me”. So when we forget a name, we may leave the opposite impression. So your effective recall and use of names (and other facts about a person’s work, business or personal life) is immensely impressive and shows that you were sufficiently interested to notice these things in the first place.

Over the years, I have researched different methods to help people remember names more easily. In essence you need to use as many senses as possible – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (movement – like actually or pretending to write the name) but I don’t recommend smelling or tasting people at networking events! Remember also that one of the founding fathers of psychology George Miller discovered that people on average can keep in their short term memory seven plus or minus two chunks of information – so don’t try to remember too many names at once without a short break to allow the information to transfer to long term memory. Here are some of the main findings – I do hope that they are useful!

  1. Pay attention when introduced Too often we are so busy with what is going on around us and thinking about ourselves that we don’t pay enough attention when people introduce themselves. Listen carefully – you need 3 to 15 seconds of close attention to move a name from short to long term memory. Expert networkers will always use some personal comment after an introduction to allow them a few seconds to commit the name to memory.
  2. Some suggest that you verify the name (for example if you see it typed on a badge first) – something like “Are you comfortable with me calling you Dave?” or “Do you normally use Dave?”
  3. Use the name immediately and frequently: Repetition is popular with Americans. Use the name three or four times during your conversation – “So, Jane, what brings you here this evening” and “Jane, it was a pleasure meeting you”. If you feel uncomfortable repeating the name out loud, it is almost as effective to repeat the name to yourself in your head. Of course, another way to repeat the name out loud without sounding artificial is to introduce the person to one of your colleagues or to help the conversation flow within the group “As Caroline just mentioned…” .
  4. Ask about their name This is a subtle way to enable you to repeat the name, say something like “Tasso is an unusual name – what is it’s origin?” or even “How do you spell that?” or “Did I pronounce Tasso correctly?”
  5. Visualise their name on their forehead Look carefully at the person and imagine that their name is written on their forehead – pick a bright colour – or your favourite. And use an interesting font – preferably with a link to the person (serif font for an older, traditional person or a modern, angular font for someone who comes across that way)
  6. Imagine you are writing their name NLP programming experts suggest getting a feel for what it would be like to write the name by moving your finger in micro-muscle movements as you are seeing the name and saying it to yourself
  7. Actually write the name down Find an excuse to note down the name on a piece of paper (assuming that they haven’t give you a business card – in which case you can still do so on the reverse with a note of the key points discussed). Many people excuse themselves periodically to make a note of those they have met and the key topics discussed and any actions agreed.
  8. Request a business card and look at their name This is easier these days if you need to obtain an email address or mobile phone number. Sometimes seeing a name written down helps you remember it more easily (this is especially true for those people who use visual memory rather than auditory memory predominantly)
  9. Use word association Try connecting a name with a familiar image or famous person. For example, if their name is Bough imagine a tree branch, if their name is Wells imagine a picture of a wishing well. If their name is Felicity think of Felicity Kendall. If it is David imagine David Beckhan.
  10. Break it down It may help you build a mental picture if you break the name into syllables and create a collection of interesting images. For example, Matthew – Math (arithmatic) and Hugh (Hugh Grant), Henderson (Hen – chicken, der – Simpson’s character, son – small boy), Robbins (Rob – burglar Bins – trash cans).
  11. Use face association Look discretely at their face and notice any unusual features. Create an association (an image, a rhyme, a song, someone else with that feature) between that feature and the name in your mind. For example, John Depp with a dented head, Joan Smith with a small nose, Ron Jenkins with a round chin.
  12. Think about similar sounds If you are predominantly an auditory person, when you hear a name think of a word that you use a lot or that is striking to associate with it. For example, Tasso sounds like “Lasso” so I am imaging “Tasso” as a cowboy with a rope, Matthew sounds like “Achew” so I see this person sneezing and Chevasse sounds like “crevasse” so I see this person falling down a hole in the snow. Some people find it helps to associate the name with a rhyme – like Slim Kim (I wish!), Harry Carry (not to be confused with Hari Kari!) or Liz Whiz etc.
  13. Use the link method If you need to remember a number of names, and the order doesn’t matter, think about a list that you are familiar with – for example, the colours of the rainbow or the months of the year and then associate names with the items on that list. For example:
    • Caroline Gaten liked the snow in January
    • Stanley Parek won my heart in February
    • Roger Smith went on a March
    • William Nash saw showers in April
    • Deborah Simmons flowered in May
  14. Remember names along a familiar route Similar to the link method is to recall a journey with which you are familiar and where there are obvious landmarks – place each person at a landmark. This is a good method if you need to remember the right sequence. Then you can recall the journey and the names should come back to you.
    • Janice sat on the green island in the middle of the road
    • At the junction with Nelson Road Neil was working in the music shop
    • At the Nelson Pub I found Natalie so I continued along Nelson Road
    • Bill was waiting outside Twickenham Stadium
    • Looking at cars in Curry Motors was Mark
    • Buying a ticket at the train station was James
  15. Use the Roman Room (Method of Loci) method An old method – similar to the route method above – using mnemonics to remember groups of names that don’t have any order. Imagine a room that you know and think about all the objects that are in there – a bureau, a TV, a music system, a coffee table and so on. Associate each name with an object in the room – then to recall things just visualise the room objects again and the name should come back into mind. Remember to use different rooms for different groups of people to avoid confusion.
  16. Think of a lemur! This is an acronym that will make you smile and remind you to try some of these common techniques:
    • Look and listen
    • Exaggerate a feature and visualise it or the way that their name sounds
    • Mentally draw some sort of image using the name
    • Use associations with journeys, lists or room contents
    • Repeat the name as much as you can (subtly)


Of course, you know that I am a great advocate of positive thinking. And if you keep telling yourself “I am rubbish at remembering names” then it is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. So tell yourself “I can remember names as well as anyone else – and can be better if I use a range of learned strategies” and see how your game improves!

And if all these techniques fail, put on a big smile and say something with real warmth like “I remember you well, but your name has slipped my mind.” Or “You’ll have to forgive me, as I get older my memory for names fails me more and more often”.


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As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.

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