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How to Remember People's Names

By Marty Nemko

I get so embarrassed when I forget someone’s name. It’s even worse when they come over to me and effortlessly toss off, “Hey, Marty!” and I have to blither, “Hi…” It’s worst of all when she’s just told me her name and I’ve already forgotten it. I swear, I think I’m missing the gene for remembering names.

Here’s how I cope with my name amnesia:

If I am overtaken by a fit of bravery, I might say something like, “I’m so embarrassed. I’m absolutely retarded at remembering names. I really like you, yet I’m blanking on your name.” Mr. Mystery usually responds positively because people appreciate candor, and my acknowledging my weakness will make the person feel superior—privately, we all like to feel superior. In addition, he’ll be flattered I said I liked him.

If I’m not feeling that brave, I might try to track down someone who might know Ms. Mystery’s name.

If I can’t do that, I try to start the conversation by asking Mr. Mystery for some information that may remind me who the heck he is. For example, “What are you up to these days?” Or when I’m with someone else, I’ll introduce that person to Mr. Mystery. That will often induce Mr. Mystery to introduce himself.

Perhaps most important, make remembering names a priority. When I hear Ms. Mystery’s name, I say to myself, “Okay remember her name. Lisa Michaels, Lisa Michaels, Lisa Michaels.”

Unless Mr. Mystery’s first name is memorable—for example, Poindexter, Tawana, or Parp Deep—I’m more successful if I try to remember both first and last names: Lisa Michaels is more memorable than Lisa.

To try to lock in Ms. Mystery’s name, I pretend I’m seeing her name emblazoned in Magic Marker on her forehead. Then, right away, I start using her name in the conversation. “Good to see you again, Lisa.” (I try to think of but, of course, not say her last name.) If her name is difficult to pronounce, I repeat it and ask if I got it right. That’s a double-winner: It gives me a chance to repeat her name and shows I care enough to pronounce it right. In the middle of the conversation, I use her name again, for example, “What’s doing at work, Lisa?” And I’ll end with something like, “It was good chatting with you, Lisa.” But don’t overdo it: You’ll sound like a salesperson who has attended too much sales training.

I really try to pay attention to the conversation. The more I remember about it, the more likely I’ll remember the person’s name the next time.

If I think Mr. Mystery should meet someone at the event, I’ll offer to introduce him—that provides another opportunity to use Mr. Mystery’s name. And if, during the conversation someone comes over to me, I’ll, of course, introduce Mr. Mystery to that person.

If I’m meeting Ms. Mystery for the first time, at the end of the conversation, if I’ve already forgotten her name, I won’t feel too self-conscious saying something like, “I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. I’m bad with names but really want to remember yours. What is it again?”

If I’m feeling unusually industrious, I might also try one or more of these techniques:

· Make up a catchy phrase about him, for example, Tubby Tommy, Sexy Sally, Muddy Mary, Willie the Wolf.”

· Ask for her business card and, after she leaves, on the back, write her most memorable physical characteristic and something about our conversation.

· If I later meet someone else, I might mention something about Mr. Mystery, giving me yet another opportunity to use his name.

· I’m too lazy to try this but I’m sure it would be helpful: Develop a list of all the people I should remember with a brief description of their physical appearance and a fact or two about them. Before attending and, I’d use it as a cheat sheet.

Key to all of the above is caring enough to pay attention. Next time you meet someone, say to yourself, “I’m going to remember his or her damn name so the next time, I won’t be terrified and, instead, I’ll impress the person.”

Advice I’d Give My Child

Try not to beat yourself up about having name amnesia. Like everyone, you have strengths, you have weaknesses. But as Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote, “A person’s name is the sweetest and most important word.” It’s worth the effort to remember names.

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