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5 steps to remembering names

By Leah Kemerling · August 11, 2021
Hero image of a young woman and elderly man shaking hands in a field
A person's name is to [them] the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Dale Carnegie

I have a freakish memory for names, dates, and personal details about people. Always have. And it's come in handy more than you might expect. 

If we've ever met in person, I can likely tell you the exact date on which it happened, the things we talked about, maybe what shirt you were wearing, and definitely anything you ate or drank. That last one is a mystery to me, but being able to grab a new friend their drink of choice without being reminded is a quick way to win people's hearts.

Although this is something I've done innately for as long as I can remember, once I gave some thought to how I was making it happen, I realized there's a method to the madness—one that you can repeat.

1. Stop saying that you're bad at names

This is by far the number one thing that stops people from learning names: they will emphatically tell you that they're "awful at remembering names."

Saying you can't do something sets your mind up to not do that thing. It's true with remembering names, and it's true with... literally anything else. 

For example, if I'm trying to eat healthier but keep telling myself that "I have zero willpower when it comes to sweets," then, dollars to donuts, I will absolutely inhale donuts the second I see them because, duh, I have ZeRo WilLpOwEr. 

Saying that you're bad at names isn't only a self-fulfilling prophecy; it also gets your introduction off on the wrong foot—for a bunch of reasons: 

  • It tells the person you're meeting that they're not worth a little extra effort on your part to make their name stick.

  • It smacks of arrogance because, no doubt, the person you're saying this to would like you to know their name, and they'll likely be doing their best to know your name.

  • It immediately makes the conversation about you and your goldfish-like memory. Not a great way to start a relationship.

  • It lets you absolve yourself of responsibility for learning other people's names. You've already proclaimed that you "can't," which means you don't see a problem with that (there's a problem with that).       

2. Say their name back to them

As soon as you hear someone say their name, shake their hand, smile, and say it back to them with thoughtful intention.

This is where you take the time to make this person feel important, heard, and excited to meet you too. It helps to say their name like it's the first time you've ever heard it. Obviously there's a limit to this: don't be a weirdo and drag it out like crazy, but say it like you mean it.

People often aren't paying close attention when someone introduces themselves. The person receiving the introduction might feel nervous about meeting someone new, or they're more concerned about saying their own name for the other person to get right.

Your name can wait. Make it about the other person upfront. This shows people that you're interested and invested in them as people, not just as a networking opportunity.

Saying a name back to someone is also helpful if the person you're meeting has a unique name. It's better to ask about pronunciation right away than to try to muddle your way through it when it's time to part ways or the next time you see them.

3. Make associations in your head

Make as many associations in your head with this person's name as you can. Do it quickly and discreetly.

"Hey, my name is Jim."

"Jim [pause, look them in the eyes, smile], so great to meet you."

In my head: "My brother-in-law's name is Jim. [Picture my brother in law doing/being something specific.] My brother-in-law is a Marine, so maybe I'll think of him in his uniform. [Look at new Jim's face, picture Marine Jim, look back at new Jim.] Jim is a character on The Office, and I love that show. New Jim looks like he's in great shape. I bet he goes to the gym. Jim at the gym."

One caveat to this approach: don't tell the person you're meeting what's going on in your head. There is no good way for people to respond to those associations, and the resulting awkwardness rarely leads to a fun conversation. Trust me on this.

I'm married to a man named Ashton, and I've heard the same comment about his name hundreds of times. He's no doubt heard it thousands of times.

"Hey, I'm Ashton."

"Oh, wow, like Ashton Kutcher!"

Whoa, first time ever hearing that, pal!

Another example that still baffles me:

A friend of mine named Leeann was once seriously asked if she was related to the singer LeeAnn Rimes. She then went on to explain to this grown, adult person that that's not how first names work.

So make the association as crazy as it takes to stick, but don't tell the person what's going on behind the scenes—no matter how benign. They don't care about how you remember their name; they just care that you do remember their name.

4. Say their name slowly and intentionally one more time before parting ways

This one is super simple: once the conversation is wrapping up, say the person's name again. Look them in the eye while you do it.

"Jim, thanks for chatting. Great to meet you!"

This part often gets rushed for a bunch of reasons, but try to make it slow and intentional. At the end of a conversation, people don't often remember what was said, but they do remember how they felt while talking to you. Make them feel heard.

5. If you do forget, own up to it and ask

Asking someone to say their name one more time isn't the end of the world. It shows that you're willing to admit a mistake. It shows that you're willing to ask for help. It shows that you're trying to do better by that person. 

The consequence of not asking in the moment is worse than the slight discomfort you might feel asking the person to repeat themselves. In other words, it's far more embarrassing to get hit with, "Actually, Leah, we've met before," a few months later than it is to ask during the introduction itself.

An especially effective formula for this is to ask for the person's name again and apologize, while also pointing out something else you were talking about. This shows that you were paying attention to them and the conversation, but you just forgot a detail. 

For example:

"Shoot, I'm so sorry. I was so shocked to find another Browns fan in Boise—or anywhere outside of Cleveland—and I spaced. Can you please tell me your name again?"  

In my opinion, this is the only time where it'd be cool to say:

"Ok, thank you! Jim the Cleveland Browns fan—now I won't forget!" 

Then, in my head, "The Cleveland Browns are named for JIM Brown." Keep making those connections until they stick.

There's no secret life hack to getting particularly good at names. Like getting good at anything else, it's about effort and practice over time. 

The main takeaway I have for you: by spending more time focusing on the other person, you become more memorable to them. You were the person who took the time to at least learn their name, not to mention all the other stuff.

People will meet loads of other folks who don't take the time to remember a single thing about them. If you're willing to be present and make the effort, you'll stand out among the masses.

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