How to remember names – every single time!

How are you supposed to remember all those names and faces!?

A guest blog by William Wadsworth.

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Maya Angelou

You’re out making waves in the world: networking with potential clients, donors, business partners, or simply meeting new friends. Nothing makes a person feel valued like you remembering their name. But there’s one problem: just how are you supposed to remember all those names and faces!?

Could there really be a version of ‘Future You’ where you can wander around a room effortlessly soaking up new names, secure in the knowledge that you won’t forget a single one?

Where the next time you see someone, you’ll not only greet them by name confidently, but also go on to ask about their job, kids, or anything else you talked about first time round?

With the help of these four memory strategies – firmly rooted in the science of memory – that future could be yours.

How to remember names

As with anything in life, you get out what you put in, so I’ve organised the strategies into four levels, depending on how far you want to go with your ‘how to remember names’ mastery.

Start with Strategy 1 for some easily achievable ‘good’ results.

Add in the techniques from Strategy 2 (‘better’) and 3 (‘best’) to really go above average on this important career / life skill.

Or if you really want to get incredible with names – like, future-presidential-candidate incredible at names – then keep going all the way through to Strategy 4 for some next-level tactics.

Ready to get amazing with names?

Let’s dive in:

Strategy 1. ‘Good’: Make Visual Connections

A quick name-learning hack that takes almost no extra effort is to build a visual image out of someone’s name.

Good things to picture for people’s names are:

  • A mental picture that represents what their name means as a word (or could mean, if you’re being imaginative!)
  • Someone you already know with that name (either a person in your life, or a celeb)
  • Someone you know with a SIMILAR name. I find a lot of novel names I encounter can be made into a familiar name just by changing a single syllable or letter.

This is partly based on the psychological principle of chunking, where you find a way to ‘group’ lots of individual units of data into a smaller number of easier-to-remember ‘chunks’. Names can often have lots of syllables (= lots of individual units to remember = hard), so translating it into an image means you only have to remember one or two ‘things’ (your chosen mental image) rather than having to remember lots of things (the syllables).

Here are a few examples of this in action:

  • Rachel Cox? I’d imagine Rachel from friends coxing a rowing boat.
  • Max Shepherd? Easy. He’s an ENORMOUS shepherd.
  • Shakila Jones? I’m mentally mashing Tom Jones and Shakira.
  • Janet Slimings? Janet is surprisingly hard for me because I happen not to know many Janets first-hand, and there’s no obvious mental image for a ‘Janet’. So after a moment’s pause, I might think Jan = January, while ‘slimings’ makes me think of dieting. So she’d be one of those January diets. (Ugh.)

With a little practice, you can start to do this on the fly, mid-conversation… BUT that isn’t always easy. So to really get the most out of this trick, see Strategy 4, which is all about preparing in advance.

Strategy 2. ‘Better’: Test Yourself On The Name

If you ask a cognitive psychologist about the secret to learning anything, most will start by pointing you to retrieval practice.

‘Retrieval practice’ simply means testing yourself: bringing knowledge back to mind from memory. I.e. ‘practising’ the process of ‘retrieving’ information from your memory.

It’s a simple idea, but incredibly powerful.

You’ve probably heard the trick to repeat people’s names back to them after they introduce themselves to you.

This is a great idea.

Not only does it give you a chance to check your pronunciation, it also gives you a first valuable round of practice at retrieving that name from memory.

Repetition is key here, so look for subsequent opportunities to retrieve that name from memory again through the conversation (don’t force it too much!), and at the very least, as you say goodbye.

‘It’s been so lovely to meet, Janet!’.

Strategy 3. ‘Best’: Space Out Your Learning

Any retrieval practice is excellent.

But spaced retrieval practice is even better.

Because no matter how well you learn something initially, your memory fades over time. (That phenomenon even has a name to memory psychologists: the forgetting curve.)

So how do you overcome the forgetting curve and remember for good?

The answer lies in spaced learning: the science of revisiting what you’ve previously learned at different time intervals – later that day, tomorrow, a few days later.

And the best way to ‘revisit’ information at those spaced intervals is to do retrieval practice.

Hence the term ‘spaced retrieval practice’.

Spaced retrieval practice is basically the most powerful and flexible way to memorise pretty well anything – here’s a nice free guide from some cognitive psychologist friends of mine (no email needed!).

Learning to remember names is no exception.

So how do you do spaced retrieval practice for names?

As well as repeating the person’s name there and then in the conversation (Strategy 2), consider repeating it later in the day, after a time delay.

You will find this harder!

But if you can fish that name out of your memory just before you would have otherwise forgotten it – maybe that night, maybe the next day – you’ll stand a much better chance of remembering it for good.

Try grabbing a bit of scrap paper when you get home from an event, and trying to recall those new names from your memory.

You might not keep the results of your scribblings (and it might not be appropriate to – so shred it when you’re done) but the exercise of retrieving the names from memory after a time delay will work wonders for getting the new names to stick.

If there’s that one name you couldn’t quite remember, first (and don’t be tempted to skip this bit!), try your best to remember the name with a good old rummage around in your memory. Then second, go look it up, either on the attendance list or with a quick LinkedIn scan.

Try and have another go at remembering it later on to see if it’s starting to stick (if not, rinse and repeat those two steps as necessary).

If you’re really committed to learning those names, you might even repeat this whole ‘scribble-them-down-from-memory’ exercise a second time a little later in the week.

Strategy 4. ‘Genius-Level’: Study For Success

I’m a great believer that you can’t always count on being the smartest person in the room, but if it matters to you enough, you can make sure you’re the best-prepared.

And so it can be with remembering names.

If you get a heads-up on the names at an event, brush up on them beforehand.

Some conference platforms will list out all the delegates online in advance of the event, sometimes with a headshot, if you’re lucky. This is a gift: take advantage, and study up!

And if you’re wondering HOW to study – our old friend from Strategy 2 /3, spaced retrieval practice, is here to help 😊. Test yourself on the names, perhaps by making flashcards with a printout of the face on one side, and the name on the back.

But what if you don’t get access to the names in advance?

If you’re really serious about becoming AMAZING with names, you can even start studying lists of names out of context.

Your objectives are to:

  1. make sure you’re FAMILIAR with all the common first names (and surnames if you’ll need them), then
  2. have a clear image ready-and-waiting (Strategy 1) for each common name.

Use Census data for your country to check out ALL the names people might be called. For example, in the UK, for first names, here are the top names for babies born 1904-1994, 1998-2008, and 2011-2019. Be targeted in your studying: if you don’t meet children in your work, don’t bother with the 2011-2019 lists. If you need to be good with surnames too, try here.

The end goal for this is to get to a point where this instant a new name comes up, you can jump straight to your go-to mental image for that name and jump-start the name-learning process instantly.

If you’re going for this ‘genius level’ approach, to remember names then little and often is key to effective studying. Consider making a daily ritual out of studying up on your names, and make sure you’re following the right steps to get the habit to stick.

However far you choose to take it, have fun getting at least a little better at name-learning!

William Wadsworth is a memory psychologist and exam success coach, who helps students ace their exams by studying smarter not harder, whether that’s at school, university, or professional qualifications in business, finance, medicine and more. He was also our guest expert on memory at the Lucidity Network. 

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