The Best Four Ways to Remember Names


During a recruiting visit to Ohio State University, a young athlete met with John Cooper, head football coach at the time. Coach Cooper told this young athlete that he was a great player and that he wanted him to play for Ohio State. A week later, the young athlete saw Cooper in an airport. Cooper didn’t remember the young athlete or his name. The athlete thought to himself, “I was the best and now I’m nobody. That just rubs me wrong.” So the athlete canceled his next visit to Ohio State and ended up playing for Miami University of Ohio instead.

Four years later, after setting school records and leading the Miami RedHawks to an unbeaten season, the athlete was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two seasons into his professional career, he became the youngest Super Bowl-winning quarterback in NFL history. Soon after that, he won a second Super Bowl and is now considered one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

John Cooper could have coached him…if only he’d remembered who Ben Roethlisberger was.

I’ll bet Cooper felt off balance in that airport as he struggled to remember the young athlete he’d just met. After all, he meets lots of people, and he knows each is important.

That’s how I felt when I walked into a party recently and immediately came face-to-face with someone whose name I should know.

“John!” I said confidently.

He looked at me funny and I thought, “Oh no, it’s not John!” So I quickly followed with, “James!”

He smiled, made small talk, and we entered the party together. Minutes later I heard him introduce himself to someone as John. Totally knocked me off balance.

As other people streamed into the room, many of whom I had met before, I became less confident and off balance, searching my mind for names. I avoided eye contact with several people for fear of being found out. I couldn’t focus on the conversations in front of me. I was anxious and frustrated. Distracted. Second-guessing every name.

While I wasn’t risking the chance to recruit the next Hall of Fame quarterback, I missed the chance to connect with people in the party. It made me anxious and likely led to missed personal and business opportunities.

Do you ever feel off balance as you forget names you should know?

Remembering names is a cornerstone skill for effective human relationships. To do it requires genuine focus on others. To not do it leads to lower confidence and missed opportunities to make meaningful connections. Unless you have a neurological issue, there’s no reason to believe you’re inherently “bad at remembering names.” This is something you can change.

I work hard at it, which made me all the more frustrated at that party. I’d not been consistently applying tried-and-true advice from Dale Carnegie to:

  1. Look and listen when someone is introducing and talking about themselves. Seems so obvious, right? Then why don’t you? It’s because you’re thinking about yourself, your appearance, your agenda and how to make this person think you’re interesting. As C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” This focus on the other person makes the next step possible.
  2. Form an impression of the other person on your mind. Dale Carnegie wrote, “When we are introduced to a stranger, the name usually sounds like this, ‘Mr. Cgtle, I want you to meet Ms. Lniterxp.’ And a moment later the face is just a blur.” Because your mind associates concepts with images, a mental impression of a person’s name improves your ability to recall it. See it. Write it. Picture it in your mind’s eye.
  3. Repeat the person’s name in your mind and out loud. Repetition grooves the name into your brain. This can be done by appropriately repeating a person’s name in conversation, going over the name in your brain or, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did each morning before setting out to inspect his troops, studying the names of people you’re scheduled to meet in advance.
  4. Associate a person’s name with one of their unique characteristics. By creating a mental link between the name and something memorable about them, it will improve recall. Several years ago, I met one of my wife’s colleagues, Harumi, at a holiday party. I knew Harumi worked in close proximity to my wife, so she was essentially her roomie (abbreviating her roommate). When I referred to Harumi by name at the next year’s holiday party, having not seen her in the previous twelve months, she couldn’t believe I remembered. That disbelief lasted only seconds before transitioning into a warm and confident interaction.

As Dale Carnegie says, “Remembering names is only an off-shoot of the desire to remember the people behind the names.”

Try practicing these four ideas to ensure you’re staying on balance and connected with others.

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