How to get better at remembering names

Daria looked at me as if I just pulled a rabbit out of a hat or a coin from behind her ear. “How did you do that?!”  It was no trick, however. All I did was remember her name. But to her it was remarkable.

We were in Germany at a conference, and though we had never met before, her face was familiar. Then, in a flash of recognition, I exclaimed, “I know you!” and mentioned her last name that I remembered from Twitter. It was a bit unusual, so I spelled it out too, to make sure I got it right. 

That moment reminded me how, for most of my life, I told myself, “I’m no good at remembering names.” I figured that, like my bad eyesight or bald head, my poor nominative recall was a genetically-dictated trait.

But then I changed.

A little bit of magic? - Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

A little bit of magic? - Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

You are not good at remembering names…yet!

What opened my mind to change even being a possibility was a book called Moonwalking with Einstein. The author, Joshua Foer, is a journalist who became interested memory tournaments, where people compete for prizes based on remembering an extraordinary number of digits or the exact sequence of a randomly shuffled deck of cards. 

Some of the feats seem impossible, until Foer learns a few techniques and begins practicing. He ultimately decides to participate in the USA Memory Championship and (spoiler alert) … wins. Aha! I realized: my memory can be trained.

The Best Tip for Remembering Names

There’s a lot of good advice available for remembering names. The best tip for remembering them is the same tip as for holding a good conversation: pay attention

The biggest problem that most people have, including me, is that in the moment when you meet someone (in person or, as with Daria, online), you are paying attention to so many other things - what you might say, what they might be think of you - that you never really process their name in the first place. 

Dale Carnegie said, “A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Eighty years later, the Washington Post’s business section cited that quote, and explained why it’s so important to use people’s names. 

“A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.

It is the one way we can easily get someone’s attention. It is a sign of courtesy and a way of recognizing them. When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important. It makes a positive and lasting impression on us. To not remember a name, especially when someone has had to repeat it several times, is to make that person feel slighted.”

How to Pay Attention

When I meet someone now, I make it a habit to ask their name, and repeat it. If I haven’t heard properly, or I’m not sure how to pronounce it, I may ask them to spell it. For names that are foreign to me, I may ask if it has a certain meaning. Recently, a woman named Chungfeng explained her name meant “Spring breeze” and that people often call her Breeze. How could I ever forget that, or her?

After the initial contact, I’ll pay further attention by using their name whenever I can. Whether it’s in email and social media or in person, instead of “Thanks!” or “Hello!” I’ll say, “Thank you, Sabine” or “Hello, Martin.” It’s such a small thing, and yet that simple act helps me remember their name and further personalizes my communications. 

It’s not fake or a trick. I practice remembering names not to be clever or to get something from the other person. Rather, I view it as a form of respect, a way to say “I see you and care enough to pay attention.” That’s a good basis for any relationship.