You Name It

You Name It

Keeping track of people’s MONIKERS goes a long way towards making them feel memorable

By Oksana Tashakova

Published: Fri 28 Nov 2014, 3:58 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 10:56 PM

It feels good when someone you met just briefly or a long time ago remembers you by name, doesn’t it? By the same token, it feels like a personal affront when someone doesn’t remember your name. How many times have you found yourself in a situation wherein you have to introduce someone you’ve run into to the person you’re with and have to ask their name? It’s a very common experience, albeit an uncomfortable one and this faux pas can cost you important business and social connections.

Remembering names is a crucial social skill, in personal and in business life. It’s a small gesture that means so much: making others feel memorable makes you memorable to them. As Tina Su of Think Simple Now points out, we’re wired to react to our names: they focus our attention.

So why is remembering names so difficult? Mostly it’s because we’re not really focused on the person. We’re having an internal conversation with ourselves. We may be worried about forgetting someone’s name, nervous about the situation, wondering what we’re going to say or how we appear to someone else.

Another reason is that names on their own mean very little. Maia Szalavitz of explains that names are just arbitrary labels — they don’t provide connections for our memory to use of their own accord.

Some other interesting facts: Szalavitz reports that people with names that link them to a kind of job tend to go into those lines of work. It’s easy to remember a computer security specialist named Erick Hacker; a pain medicine doctor named Richard Payne and an animal rights activist named Priscilla Feral. (These are real examples, by the way.) The first letter of someone’s name is often linked to geography or career choices. There are many men named Dennis that become dentists; the law profession is littered with Larrys and Lauras; many women named Virginia live in Virginia Beach and Philadelphia has a disproportionate number of residents named Philip.

So how do you remember someone’s name when it doesn’t have a natural link to a job or place? Are unusual names easier to remember? Some researchers say that single-syllable American names like Jim, John, Tim and Tom are difficult to remember. Others say that uncommon names are the ones that throw our recall off.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne of describes some interesting studies concerning names and memory. For instance, we’re wired to remember faces 
rather than names; we remember people better if we don’t look around at their hair, ears, neck or shoulders; we remember people best when we look directly into their eyes; and knowing someone’s name before you meet them helps you to remember them.

This last finding may be because when we meet someone, we are trying to take in so much that the name flies out the window. Author Jill Spiegel tells Helen Coster of “When we first meet someone, we’re taking in so much visually and emotionally. They say their name, but it’s up there, floating in our heads.” When you learn someone’s name before you meet them, you may give your brain a head start in terms of associations.

The key to remembering someone’s name is to pay attention to that person and to create associations and connections between them and their name. Szalavitz and Whitbourne both stress that you have to stop stressing in order to do this. When you worry that you won’t remember someone’s name, that stress can stand in your way. When the stress hormone cortisol is running through your veins, your fight-and-flight response is preventing you from making any memories that aren’t crucial to your survival. So relax in order to really pay attention and tell yourself that you are wonderful at remembering names.

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is very useful for memory improvement. It’s all about the associations language creates in our minds. In an article, NLP therapist Tim Hallbom explains that your internal dialogue uses the same auditory nerve that is used for external sound. This means that your internal chatter interferes with your listening ability. The best way to improve your recall is to link people’s names with sight, sound and touch.

Hallbom advises repeating someone’s name to yourself to link your internal and external environment; imagining the person’s name written on their forehead; and imagining that you’re writing their name. Remember to look into people’s eyes when you meet them, a characteristic that won’t vary much over time, and really give them your attention. Then you can try using other associative techniques.

Author Benjamin Levy tells Coster that the acronym FACE can help you to cement people’s names into your memory. Focus on the person and look in their eyes; Ask what version of their name they like to go by; Comment on their name and create a cross-reference such as “My mother’s middle name was Ann;” and Employ their name by finding ways to repeat it out loud.

There are many other ways to create memory associations with names. You’ll have to experiment in order to discover what works best for you.

What does the person or their name remind you of? Does Raj look like your Dad? Does Mohammed remind you of a book or movie character? Can you link Lisa’s name with the leaning tower of Pisa? The strangest associations often work better than more standard connections, reports Whitbourne. You can link people’s names with some aspect of who they are or what they do too. Kate Lorenz of Career recommends word play. Think ‘Joann is from Jordan’ or ‘Dale works in sales.’

Szalavitz offers some more NLP techniques. Repeat the person’s name to yourself while prolonging the syllables or giving differing emphasis and volume to the syllables. Draw Rena out into ‘Reeeeee-Nahhh.’ Spell out the name in your mind, picturing each letter and sounding them out. Try seeing the letters dance or move or even the whole name moving about or vibrating in order to make links with more of your senses.

If you can find out people’s names beforehand, that’s your best bet. Ask around, Google companies, look at online RSVPs and other lists so that you can get a sort of introduction before the actual introduction. If you’re able to, jot down people’s names after you meet them with a few words of description. Lorenz recommends creating a file of contacts, updating it right away when you’ve met someone and reviewing it before events in which you might run into these people again.

Whitbourne advises practising these associations with TV characters and actors at home. This way, you can figure out what works best for you.

And if you do forget someone’s name — don’t hesitate to try again. Explain to someone that you’ve enjoyed the conversation and could you get their name again? Or if you’re running into someone again, explain that you remember them well but their name has slipped your mind, says Lorenz.

Remembering someone’s name helps you build instant rapport with others and create relationships. Try some of these techniques or create your own in order to give meaning to someone’s name and associate it with that person’s face.

(Write to Oksana at

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