Wish you could remember names? I’ll bet you do. After all …
Forgetting names sucks, especially at events where you’re meeting important new contacts. Business cards are fine and dandy, but you want to be looking that new person in the eyes and connecting, not constantly peeking at the sweaty lump of cardboard stuck to your palm.
Instead, you want to hold each person’s name with the certainty that can only come from mastering your memory.
Or You Can Keep Living The Nightmare
You know the one. You hear a name and then just a few seconds later … it’s gone.
The good news is, it’s not your fault. There’s a reason your brain doesn’t grasp onto names and hold onto them like treasure. (Yes, treasure. Every name is as valuable as a rare coin.)
The better news is that, even if it isn’t your fault that you can’t remember names, you can eliminate the problem. With practice, you can remember the names of as many people as you want. Even if you make a mistake from time to time, even slip-ups can become powerful assets.
3 Key Reasons We All Forget Names
(Including Memory Champions)
You can help yourself stop forgetting names by understanding why it happens.
First, names are abstract. Unless you’re a philologist, most names will hold zero meaning for you. Though there are some ways that the meaning of names can be manufactured to help your memory.
Second, when we meet people, we might hear names, but we’re not paying attention. We’re either dazzled by their good looks or horrified by the food dangling off their faces. Worse, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next. Our concentration is directed inward instead of outward.
Finally, we’re bombarded by stimuli. The room is filled with noises, we may be drinking alcohol, suffering jet-lag. or moving around the meeting space. All of these elements distract us.
You know how you sometimes go into the kitchen from the living room and then forget why you’re in the kitchen? This problem happens because the instant you leave the living room, the movement and change of locations floods all of your senses. Your intention isn’t so much forgotten as it is suddenly pushed out to sea like a message in a bottle.
The same thing happens when you’re introduced to a person. You hear the name, but then you ask where they’re from and what they do. In combination with all the activity in the room, it’s the same effect. Waves of information push that bottle out to the margins of your mind and the new name you just learned falls out your ear.
The Super-Simple Mechanics Of Memorizing Names
Let me tell you a story.
A few weeks ago, my friend Max Breckbill of Starting From Zero held one of his great entrepreneur dinners in Berlin. A bunch of people get together to network and just chill out in a relaxed restaurant. His dinners are amazing.
Max always begins the evening with a round of introductions. As each person said their name, I created a crazy image to help me recall their names. For example, there was a guy named Lars, so I saw Lars from Metallica playing drums on his head.
For Lukas, I saw Luke Skywalker using his Light Sabre to carve an S onto Lukas’s chest so I would remember it was Lukas with an S instead of Luke as in Skywalker.
A bit later, I saw a guy named Jeremy in a fistfight with Eddie Vedder with the Pearl Jam song of the same name playing on the soundtrack.
There were 20 other names and in a very short period, I created a wildly explosive image for each. I did not connect the names in any particular way with a story, however. For me, the linking method would not be helpful because Max rotates the tables. Plus, at many events, you won’t see people in the same place twice. The constant shifting means that each individual needs their own vignette, a mini-story that requires no connection with any other name.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use the building as a Memory Palace and store that image with the location of the person when you first encountered them. You most certainly should.
What you don’t want to do is be looking at a person and trying to see where their imagery fits in with Mickey Mouse time bombs as Taylor Swift razors through Wolverine’s dandelion claws in a showdown. You just want one clear and distinct vignette per person that can travel with them wherever they go.
And this is important: These vignettes must be INSANE. The good news is, it’s easy make images that really pop in your memory. Just …
Make Them Brighter Than The Sun
And More Colorful Than The Joker
When I saw Lars, it wasn’t just a humdrum image I thought about. The Metallica drummer was exploding with light and color, almost like a neon sign wrapped around a disco ball.
Keep in mind that I “thought” about this, which is quite different than seeing. It’s not like memory wizards have HD television in their minds. You can develop visually so that you do see things better in your imagination, but you don’t strictly need to be a visual person. You can get started with nothing more than verbal associations. And then ask yourself, “what would this look like IF I COULD see it?” Often a simple question like that will move you toward the ability to see in your mind.
Use Explosive Sounds, Epic Sizes
And Ripsnortin’ Physical Force
When I saw Luke Skywalker carving an S into Lukas’s chest, I felt the burn and imagined how it must smell so vividly that I almost felt like puking. I even imagined that I could see the smoking embers on his shirt from the searing motion of the Light Sabre.
When I saw Jeremy fist-fighting Eddy Vedder, it wasn’t music-video sized Vedder the way I’ve seen him on YouTube. Vedder was massive and his fists pounded down with enormous force. Plus, the song Jeremy was blasting at top volume, as if screamed by Vedder with volcanic energy.
Again, this happens both in words and visuals with as many other sensations involved as possible. The images feed the verbal descriptions and the words going through my mind amp up the sensations so that everything is tangible, memorable and downright Magnetic.
How long should this creative process take? With practice, mere seconds. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you can pick up this skill and do it at a very high level. I’ve seen teenagers learn the skill in under an hour and win competitions on the same afternoon.
How To Practice Memorizing Names
Since the stakes are high when it comes to memorizing names at events, try practicing at home before taking your new skill out in the field. It’s easy: use Wikipedia to get a list of names and use the tools you’ve just learned. You’ll also want to use the Memory Palace technique that you can pick up from my Free Memory Improvement Kit.
But this is important:
Don’t make it a list of just any old names. Choose names that you would like to have memorized: composers, scientists, poets, names that will make a difference to your quality of life either professionally or in connection with a hobby or personal interest. One of the biggest failings with learning memory techniques is that people practice with uninteresting material like shopping lists – information that they’ll never really use. (Sheesh, who can’t remember what they like to eat?)
No matter what kind of names you choose to practice with …
Although you will soon be capable of memorizing dozens of names at rapid speeds, don’t overwhelm yourself at the learning stage. Start with 5-10 names. Developing the ability to learn, memorize and recall names isn’t a competition. Your goal is to learn the technique so you can master it, not frustrate yourself into giving up a skill that amounts to real magic. Memorizing names is, arguably, the most important skill in the world because of how important it makes other people feel.
Once you’ve associated crazy images to each name, go through the list a couple of times and make sure you’ve really exaggerated each.
Next, remove yourself from the list. Take a notebook and head off to a cafe or at least to another room. A lot of people make the mistake of recalling a word and then checking right away to see how they’ve done. Unfortunately, this bad habit amounts to rote learning and will not serve you in the long run. You need delayed gratification so that you’re really exercising your imagination and memory.
As you sit in that cafe, write down each and every name you associated an image with. If you come up blank, place a question mark and move on. Give yourself space and really hunt for the images. Then, as you head home, go over the list and fill in any blanks you manage to excavate.
Test Test Test, Rinse And Repeat …
And Then Test Some More
You don’t have to give yourself a score when you get home, but do take careful note of where you made mistakes. Analyze what went wrong and work on making the associative-images that didn’t help you recall a name stronger.
Repeat this practice until you’re confident that you can memorize names at an event. Once you’re out in the world, don’t feel like you have to give demonstrations or show off. This skill can be private, though you will find people noticing your talent and you should teach them how to do it. They’ll thank you forever.
More Hot Tips For Memorizing Names
At Events Without Stress, Strain Or Embarrassment
If you’re at an event featuring a round of introductions, try to be the one who goes last so you don’t spend the entire time worrying that your introduction could have been better. Plus, if you go last, people will remember you better thanks to the recency effect. If there isn’t a circle introduction at the event, you can be the one who suggests it. This strategy is an excellent way to engineer your position.
Regardless of when you go, have an elevator speech prepared so that your mind isn’t clogged up. If you’re dreaming up your introduction on the fly, you won’t be focused enough on memorizing the names.
Always Be Cool
Relaxation is essential when memorizing any kind if information, especially in real time. Daily habits like meditation and fitness help a great deal. You can also deliberately manufacture comfort using invisible techniques at the event such as Pendulum Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. No one will know you’re doing anything and you’ll be as relaxed as a sleeping YouTube kitten. Nothing will rattle your cage.
Don’t Drink Or Smoke
If you want to have a strong memory that works on command, cut out alcohol and stop smoking. I used to get away with it when doing memory demonstrations, but alcohol seriously messes with your working memory and nicotine withdrawal makes concentration difficult if not impossible. Better never to have smoked at all.
Let Go Of The Outcome
Wanting to succeed trips a lot of beginners up. But when you put all thoughts of success out of your mind, your memory is free to percolate the images you feed it.
Plus, you can play with the names in high spirits. Since you’ll want to go through the names a few times throughout the evening to massage them from working memory into long-term memory, you want the entire process to be fun. But if you’re racing through the list motivated by the fear of making a mistake, you’ll only damage the results.
Speaking of mistakes …
Don’t Get Stressed When You Flub
I struggled with a few names at Max’s event and it’s all Brian Dean’s fault. Seriously, I needed to go through the list of names at least once to ensure I could remember them all, but he kept asking me all these questions about memory.
Brian Dean is the guy behind backlinko, which is a site you need to check out if you run a website or blog.
But it really isn’t his fault that I wound up reaching hard for a couple of names. As I explained to Brian while we were talking, because I had my fat lips motoring away instead of going over the names a few times, I was not working against the forgetting curve. I predicted that I would lose 40-60% of my potential for total recall every ten minutes that passed without making a quick pass over the names.
It turns out my numbers were off. I only struggled with 2 of the names later, but didn’t entirely forget them as I’d predicted I might. With a bit of a push, the images popped up and I was able to retrieve them. Annoying, but passable.
However, there was one name I got completely wrong, but in that’s only because I misheard it. (Remind me to one day tell you the story of Jonathan Levi and his experience mistakenly understanding that someone’s name was “Laura.” That mishap made for quite an evening here in Berlin!)
Anyhow, the point is that despite my dark prediction of failure while speaking with Brian, I had consciously released the outcome. Yes, everyone in the room knew that I was a memory guy, and that created some high expectations (if only in my head), but mistakes are an opportunity to talk about how memory works. And in many ways, mistakes make for better illustrations of how and why the techniques work or fail to work.
Avoid Mystifying Abstractions
For example, “Pascal” was one of the names I struggled with. Because things were going fast, I picked an ineffective image for him. The philosopher Pascal had famously turned from atheism to religion, so I saw an image of God halfway putting a noose over his head and halfway slitting his throat.
Although I did get this name back eventually, it took a fight for a few reasons. First, I don’t know how Pascal the philosopher looked and I’ve never seen God. In retrospect, I could have used Michaelangelo’s God from the Sistine Chapel, but that still doesn’t exactly help get back to “Pascal” at speed.
Second, I tried to see two actions instead of just one. And neither hanging nor throat-slitting have any direct relationship to atheism. I created so many vague elements that I could barely remember the hurdles I’d placed between myself and the target information.
But I didn’t let myself get stressed out about it. I simply noticed the outcome and knew I would use it as a talking point and teaching tool if called upon to give a memory demonstration. I have given demonstrations, I have made errors and I have won respect simply by keeping my cool and sharing what went wrong.
You can too, so I recommend you follow the Always Be Cool principle while taking time to analyze your mistakes and thinking about how you can do better next time. And share the process so that others can learn too.
You Don’t Have To Remember Them In Order Every Time
Let’s say that you’re called upon to give a demonstration and you can’t recall a couple of names. Instead of giving up or getting frustrated, just move on, the same way you would in practice.
As you’re finishing the other names, you’ll often be pleasantly surprised at how the ones you forgot suddenly spring back. And if not, you wind up with an opportunity to explain what went wrong and demonstrate troubleshooting on the fly.
Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get frustrated. You don’t want to blow your momentum over what amounts to nothing in the long run. Always be cool and your memory will serve you well.
Prepare to be admired
People will be super-impressed, especially if you’re humble and can handle any mistakes gracefully.
By the same token …
Prepare to be forgotten
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into someone and called them by name. They’re always shocked and amazed that I remember them.
But more often than not, they can’t do the same. This lapse in their memory can create an awkward moment, but don’t let it. Just make a joke or otherwise blow it off and offer to teach them the skill. You’ll be able to use their name as an example and personalized teaching is often the best.
And assuming you get yourself a list of names and get practicing, you now have a skill that will serve you for a life. You never have to be at an event in a sea of strangers again. When you can remember names, you will always be surrounded by friends.