Let's make this really, really simple.
What makes remembering someone's name so hard? Well, it's usually because you're focused on a million different pieces of information at once. You are taking in the environment. You are thinking of what you're going to say, how you're going to respond to what they're going to say. You're aware of other people around you, maybe even what they're saying. You are subconsciously (or consciously) analyzing what people are wearing, what you're wearing, the way they are speaking, the way you are speaking--you are taking in and analyzing it all. So when someone does finally say his or her name, you miss it.
The pre-hack here I'm going to share with you here is to always, always ask people to repeat their name.
As you shake her hand, ask her again to clarify. "Sarah?"
She will say it again, "Yup, Sarah."
"Got it. Pleasure to meet you, Sarah."
You've now heard her name a total of four times: the first time she said it, with three follow-ups. It is now embedded somewhere in your short-term memory.
But as much as we would all love for that short-term memory to last us the rest of the afternoon, or the remainder of the night, it often fails--no different than when we sit at our computers, sign up for a new website, and vow that there's no chance we could possibly forget the login and password we just created. And then sure enough, the very next day, we are hitting the "reset password" button because we couldn't remember.
The way we deal with these short-term memory failures is we write things down. We all have those documents on our computers endlessly listing all our different logins and passwords. So answer me this:
When you meet someone new, why don't you write their name down?
We tend to forget that we all have mini computers in our pockets now. We forget that pulling your phone out to quickly respond to a text is completely appropriate in our society. We forget that all our smartphones have a notepad on them.
So write down their name.
This is my oh-so-obvious and yet not-so-obvious networking hack, and I use it everywhere I go. Did I just meet the manager of a restaurant I like to go to? I jot down in my notepad on my phone, "Restaurant Manager, Soho House, Bob." Did I just meet someone I've seen around the area a few times? "West Loop Guy, short hair, always wears jeans, Jim." Did I just meet a girl that I may or may not want to ask out in the future? "Pretty blonde, studied in London, from Arizona, Alyssa." If I have even the slightest inkling that I will see that person again, I write their name down. And I can't tell you how many times I have walked into a place three months later, seen someone I recognize, gone searching through my phone for their name, only to have them respond with, "Wow! I can't believe you remembered my name!"
It's not cheating. It's called being resourceful.
We are moving into an age where much of what we need to recall on-hand can be accessed via the internet. Can't remember a fact? Google it. Can't remember how to get somewhere? Put it in your maps. Can't remember a phone number? Check your address book. So why not apply that same logic to remembering people's names?
Go make a note on your phone. Try it.
You'll be amazed how many times you go back to it searching for someone's name.