“Most people are bad at remembering names,” says Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Being “good” at remembering names is a matter of consciously investing a little time and attention. “The short answer is that [being bad at remembering names] is more an excuse,” says Richard Jackson Harris, professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. “But [remembering names] tends to be a difficult thing to do.”
In both social and professional settings, this type of simple name-dropping carries weight. “People feel appreciated when you call them by name,” Harris says. “It shows, ‘Oh, so and so has taken a little interest in me.’” In the workplace, this is especially valuable. “A new employee who learns everyone’s name quickly impresses people and can show he or she wants to be a good employee.”
How can you become better at committing a name-face association to memory? Here are some basic but effective tips and tricks to the art.
First off, paying attention right when you are introduced to someone is key. What often happens, whether at a party or elsewhere, is that people are not fully focused on the introduction and easily miss the name, Harris says. “The main reason [we don’t remember names] is we don’t invest enough in encoding the name when we first hear it,” Foer says. “We are thinking about something clever to say back, so we never encode it properly.” Be attentive to link the name with the face right from the beginning.
Identify something different.
Find a defining characteristic to associate with someone’s name and face. Perhaps the person is tall or has red hair. Anything that sets someone a bit apart from others and is connected to your memory of that person helps with recall, Harris says.
Create a visual.
Foer says one of the most effective memorization tools is to create a visual image. His example: If you meet a “Bill” who has a large nose, you could create a mental snapshot of his nose as a duck’s bill. “That technique forces you to spend a little bit of time investing mental energy into making that association,” he says. “Investing energy is what makes information memorable.”
Repeat the name.
One of the oldest tricks, Foer says, is to use the person’s name in conversation right after an introduction. “If you don’t repeat something you’re not likely to hold onto it forever,” he says.
Take time to study.
It does take time to memorize names and faces, Harris says. At the start of every semester, Harris sits down between classes with a roster of his students and methodically goes through the names until he feels like they are comfortably committed to memory. He recommends new employees on the job take the same approach.
Don’t be afraid to ask.
Perhaps you didn’t catch someone’s name because it was loud when you were introduced or the person has an unusual name. People often shy away from asking for someone to repeat a name or help with pronunciation. “I’ve found most people would rather have you ask them to help you pronounce their name correctly or to repeat it than just not say it at all,” Harris says. Even a memory champion like Foer admits to forgetting things from time to time.