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  • @Arc52Cathy

How to be better at remembering people’s names

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Our names are important. They represent who we are. I’m told that I am good at remembering names. And I am. But I wasn’t always. Too often I meet people who have a variety of negative responses to remembering names, ‘Oh, I’m useless at remembering names!’ said with shame, embarrassment, bravado, as matter of fact, or trivialisation of any need to remember or use names at all. Underneath all of this is often a wish to be good at using people’s names.

But that’s all it is; a wish!

Perhaps some people are predisposed to remembering people’s names more easily than others, but that’s not a reason to give up. You can be better at remembering names if you want to and here’s how.

The starting point is genuinely wanting to remember and being willing to put in some effort. It cannot just be a wish. If you don’t have any need or don’t attach any importance to remembering, then you probably won’t remember. I don’t remember the name of everyone I meet. I have to perceive a need (although I have incidentally got better at recalling names through the use of the following techniques).

  1. Repetition

  2. Visualisation

  3. Association

1. Repetition.

When someone tells you their name, repeat it. If you can, say it out loud. Check that you have pronounced it correctly. Ask them to repeat if you haven’t heard it or you’re not sure. The effort is usually appreciated. Notice how the word feels in your mouth (we use different muscles to produce different sounds). If you can’t say it out loud, repeat it in your head….repeatedly. The key word here is notice. Pay attention to the name, nothing else. Then you should use the name often. Not so often that it feels un-natural, but if you are not used to using names this may take a bit of time to get the balance right. Again, if you can’t use the name out-loud, say it in your head. This is especially useful if you are in a group. When someone starts to speak, repeat their name in your head. If you want to link or make reference to something that someone has said earlier, use their name and if necessary check you have it right. E.g. “As Samira was saying earlier (Have I got that right?)” looking at the person to check “I think we should be……” Samira will either give a nod, a smile, say yes, or correct you (“It’s Alison, actually) repeat the correct pronunciation (“SamAra”), and/or make reference to the spelling (“With an ‘A’ not an ‘I’.” Look, as well as listen. They may also say something like, “It’s ok.” “Don’t worry.” Or chuckle and look away, or make a gesture, like a shake of the head or hand that indicates that you still have it wrong. If the context is formal, you should just move on at this point (Use the name if you are confident that it’s right).

“Oh, sorry, as Alison was saying…”

And not using it if you’re still unsure.

“Sorry, as you were saying…”

If it is informal then you have more choices around how you proceed and should have another go at getting the name right.

2. Visualisation

Back to that first introduction. It’s so much easier if you can see the name as well as hear it. (Don’t use the fact that someone may be wearing a name-badge as an excuse for not even trying. Or do – it’s up to you!). Look at the name as you repeat. See it in your head. What shape is it making? Write it in your own hand-writing in your head. Maybe even trace it with your finger. If it’s a workshop situation it’s probably acceptable to be quite overt with this movement, but if you’re at a formal conference you can simply be more discreet with this hand or finger movement.

Again, if it is a workshop or teaching environment and you have access to a register, look at the register before the session to rehearse the names you’ll hear. If you can, look at the written name as you hear it. Write it as you hear it.

In recalling people’s name recalling the act of learning the name is very helpful to me. It’s a bit like an extension of recalling where you know someone from, and then their name comes to you after that; if I can recall the situation of the first meeting (e.g. where they were sitting in a classroom), the name will come to me, or at least something that is close enough to make the person appreciate that I have bothered to try.

3. Association

Association is one of the most common ways that people tell me they remember names. Association can be with just about anything, but people often start with the actual sound of the name and look of the person. E.g. like the actor, King, poet, sister-in-law, neighbour, weird bloke in the shop down the road. None of this needs to be said out-loud if you think it will embarrass anybody, but it might help.

The trouble with choosing what someone looks like as a memory device, is finding someone who shares both a look and a name. Unless of course you can remember the ‘not’ as a device. E.g. Her name is Rhianna, but she is not the singer (‘cos she looks nothing like her). It’s odd, but what something 'is not' can prompt what it 'is'.

Sounds like... People will often draw similarities for you if they know they have an unusual name. I often use this technique with names that are new to me.

Reminds me of… This device may make use of visual clues. It might be something associated with what the person looks like or what the name looks like when written down, or what it sounds like. If you are in a culturally unfamiliar context keep this one firmly in your head as your associations may be profoundly insulting, even if they seem pretty innocent to you.

Association with a command or instruction i.e. “Cathy with a C ”. (People often misspell my name when they haven’t seen it written. There must be something particularly hard-edged about my ‘Cuh’ sound, as they more often spell it with a ‘K’). Or as in my previous example, “Samara with an A”.

These are just examples of association. You are probably far more creative than I am, so have fun with it.

These methods do work, but they require practice. You will occasionally fail entirely and you will certainly make minor mistakes along the way. They key things are:

  • Be willing to make mistakes

  • Be sensitive to signals that you’ve got it wrong and accept corrections

  • Choose your moments

You will be making quite an investment of effort, so start with easy situations with small numbers of people and where the consequences of getting it wrong are minimal. So, stop wishing and start repeating.

Look out for my blog on more complex situations like large groups, or names that are foreign to us, coming soon.

This Forbes article gives 5 methods, but 3 things are easier to remember than 5.

  • Repeat, Visualise, Associate

Arc52: Consultancy in Researcher Development

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