You spot that acquaintance at the market and begin to wave. As you walk toward each other, an emphatic “hey” slips out—followed by a startling black hole of silence.
What on Earth is her name?
“Hey girl!” Your cheeks flush as you try to decide whether to just confess or wade through a conversation without revealing your memory lapse.
Forgetting a name can make for a pretty painful social encounter, but in a professional relationship, it can be lethal. So, if you know you’re not great with names, or just want a little boost for an upcoming event you’ve got on the calendar, try these strategies for enhancing your memory.
1. Really, Really Focus
The most important thing you can do when trying to remember names is to really focus on the person’s name—and nothing else—when first meeting him or her.
In many networking situations, it’s so easy to be distracted by other things that your focus isn’t really on the person you’re talking to: Perhaps you’re thinking about how you’ll respond after you hear his name—so intently that you don’t even hear it in the first place. Or maybe you’re worried that she’ll notice your nerves or the Chardonnay stain on your shirt. Maybe you’re subconsciously scanning the room looking for the next person you want to talk to.
Stop. As difficult as it may be, try to focus only on the introduction at hand, even if just for a few moments. Listening to the person in front of you and really focusing on his or her name is the first step to remembering it.
2. Appeal to Your Learning Style
Once you’ve actually heard your acquaintance’s name, try one of the strategies below based on your learning style to help drill it into your mind. (Not sure of your style? Take the VARK questionnaire to find out.)
If you’re a visual learner, networking events with name tags are your sweet spot. Seeing someone’s name written out as he or she says it will increase your changes of remembering it tenfold.
If you’re in a more casual setting, there’s still hope. One helpful trick is to find an image you can associate with a person’s name. When you shake hands with Bob, for example, imagine him in a Bob the Builder hard hat. You can also try making a visual association between the person and a key fact about him or her: Imagine Steve from San Francisco standing on the Golden Gate Bridge. If seeing the name is more helpful than an image, try asking Katie if she spells her name K-a-t-i-e or K-a-t-y, and then imagine the name written down.
If you remember best after hearing something said, try repeating someone’s name (naturally) throughout the conversation: “John, what department do you work in?” “Were you at the softball game last weekend, Sarah?” “I’m so glad I finally got to meet you, Alex.” As long as you don’t overdo it, it can also be very flattering to the person you’re talking with.
Another valuable strategy is inviting the acquaintance to repeat his or her name before leaving the conversation. Begin with a compliment: “It’s been so much fun talking to you! Can you remind me of your name?”
If you’re a hands-on learner, you may need to be even more intentional with your name-remembering strategies. One simple way to remember names is to write them down on a piece of paper after a conversation. More than likely, the act of writing will be a good reinforcement, but for additional help, keep a list of the names of people you met to review later that day or the next morning.
Or, have a little fun with word play. Utilizing mnemonic devices or alliteration, for example, can make for helpful memory triggers—“Taylor from Baylor” and “Jungle Jim”—and playing with the name gives you a chance to interact with it.
3. Recover When Your Memory Slips
Try as you might, there will still be the occasional name that simply doesn’t stick. But fear not—there are some easy ways to save the situation.
You may have a get out of jail free card if you’re talking with someone else when this acquaintance approaches you. Simply introduce your friend—“Have you met Jeremie?”—and more than likely your acquaintance will introduce herself in response. If this doesn’t work, it may be helpful to begin by reminding the acquaintance of your name first (“I haven’t seen you in a while! I’m Chris, again”). She may be thankful and likely will return the favor.
If you’re caught in a situation in which you must reveal that you’ve forgotten a name, do so in a way that shows genuine interest in the person rather than embarrassment about your faux pas. Rather than resorting to the old, “I’m sorry, I’m terrible with names,” try something along the lines of, “I was so fascinated by your work in social media that I’ve totally blanked on your name! Could you remind me?” Sharing something you do remember will show that you care and make it easy to move the conversation quickly past your forgetfulness.
Just make sure to really pay attention this time around.