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How to Remember Names (Really)

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

You’ve just been introduced, and halfway through the conversation you realize that, once again, you have no recall of this person’s name. While forgetting names is not the worst thing you can do socially, remembering names is one of the best. It eases social situations, sets you apart from the other bumbling schlubs, lets your companion know that they had a positive impact on you, and, face it, is just plain old good manners.

But let’s get real. Unless you have one of those photographic memories featured on so many TV crime shows, you’re going to have to work at it a little. Etiquette maven and social skills coach PJ McGuire, owner of Chicago-based Modet, offers her top tips for remembering names.

Some Top Tips

“First,” she says, “you must understand that remembering names is an active process. You can’t just expect yourself to remember them automatically. You truly need to work at it—every time you meet someone new, for the rest of your life. You have to make a conscious commitment to it.”

Her favorite trick? The same one that Franklin Roosevelt reportedly used: When you are first introduced, imagine that person’s name written on their forehead with a colored Sharpie. “With practice, I guarantee that every time you see that person afterwards, their name will pop up on their forehead,” she says.

Another top tip: Use a person’s name continuously during your conversation. Not in the obnoxious salesperson way in which your name is inserted into every sentence, though. Instead, try using it three times within the conversation: When you are first introduced, at some point during the middle and once again at the close of the conversation. “This is a natural way to include the repetition,” explains McGuire. “When you recall the conversation later, odds are good that you will also recall their name.”

She also recommends name association. Think of someone else who has the same name then connect them with a shared trait. For example, you meet Sally, a new lawyer at an association meeting. Your cousin’s wife is named Sally. They both have short blonde hair. Bingo. “These small connections can be powerful triggers for your memory,” says McGuire.

OK, but what if, despite your best efforts you draw a blank on a name. “Use humor. Everyone has been in the same situation at one time or another. You might comment that your brain is overloaded from a tough week and would they mind repeating their name again? You could also tell them you’d like to stay in touch, could they spell their name? Or better yet, do they have a card?  If you remember a person from a specific event but forgot their name, you can always say something like ‘We had such a nice conversation at last year’s cocktail party. Could you remind me again of your name?’ Then vow to do better next time.”

It seems that, like getting to Carnegie Hall, remembering names comes down to the same darn thing: practice, practice, practice.

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Categories: Business Development, Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Learning
Originally published January 23, 2012
Last updated November 12, 2023
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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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