31 Days

Day 28

How to Remember People’s Names

Tell us if this situation sounds familiar: You've just met someone new and by the end of the night (or sometimes by the time you're finished shaking hands), you've completely forgotten their names. Hey, it happens to the best of us.

“There's no such thing as a good or bad memory,” says Kevin Horsley, an International Grand Master of Memory based in South Africa. “There's only a good or bad memory strategy.” According to Horsley, the problem is most likely plain and simple distraction. This does make sense. Think about to the last time you met someone. Were you in an unfamiliar space? Or on a crowded elevator at work? Or balancing a drink in your hand with music playing in the background? These situations prevent you from giving your undivided attention.

But studies have proven that hearing our name activates our brain. We perk up and noticed it, even when it's spoken in a noisy room. You may have noticed how influential people like world leaders often make an effort to use people's names—this is because they're aware how much it matters. We simply feel better when people remember us. And it stands to reason we feel worse when they don't. But fear not. Here's why we forget and some proven ways to increase your ability to catch and retain names.

Embarrassment after not remembering someone's name

Why We Forget

According to Charan Ranganath, the director of the University of California's Memory and Plasticity Program, people are better at remembering things that they're motivated to learn. There are times we're happy and excited to meet someone and learn their names, but other times it's more of a passing thing and, at the time, it doesn't seem important. Other times, we underestimate the work necessary to remember something as seemingly simple as a name.

Meet and Repeat

One of the easiest ways to catch a name and log it into your brain is to repeat it as soon as you hear it ... "Nice to meet you, Austin." Or ask a question with his name at the end, "So, how long have you been working in finance, Austin?" Often, we get distracted by hoping to make a good impression or hold a conversation that we blow right past the introduction and thus, end up forgetting the person's name.

Make Associations

Think of ways to connect a name with something familiar. Memory champions like Horsley advise making compelling associations that stick in the mind like a TV commercial jingle. Try creating an alliterative pattern involving the name and something you know about the person, like "Daniel from Delaware" or "IT department Ian." Another way association can be helpful is to make a connection between the person you're talking to, and someone else you know with the same name—be it a friend or family member, or simply a celebrity who shares their first name and looks vaguely like them.

Make Entertaining Connections

The more vivid your mental images or actual interactions are, the more memorable they will be. Horsley points out, there's a good reason that children pick things up so quickly. Think about how kids first learn about a puddle. "What does that child do with that puddle?" he asks. "They jump in, they experience the moment, and they have a little fun." So be outgoing when you meet someone and don't be afraid to have some fun. Even if it's just with childish connections and associations in your head. It'll do your memory some good.

Just Ask

Jimmy Fallon and Kristin Wiig

There's no shame in being honest. If, at the end of a new conversation, you can't recall the other person's name, just say, “I'm sorry, but I was a bit distracted by the music/crowd/etc. What was your name again?”