How often do you meet new people and later realize that you have forgotten their names? If you are like me, that happens pretty often.
Unless you can get better at remembering their names, the second time you see them you're likely to be embarrassed when you see their faces and there’s nothing in your brain where their names should be.
Looking to solve that problem?
Keith Rollag, who earned a PhD from Stanford and serves as chair of the management division at Babson College, where I teach, has just published What to Do When You’re New, a book that devotes a chapter to six steps that will help you get much better at remembering names.
Rollag is an authority on how to make the best of being a newcomer. As he explains in a recent interview, “I got interested in the challenges of being new long ago, when, as an R&D manager at Procter and Gamble, I got transferred to Japan for what turned out to be a five-year ex-pat assignment. It was my first time out of the country, and it threw me into all sorts of new experiences.”
And his doctoral thesis focused “on studying the newcomer experience--how people evaluated newness in themselves and others. Over the past 20 years, much of my research has focused on some aspect of newcomer onboarding, socialization, and orientation.”
While it’s difficult to put a number on how his six steps help people remember names, they have kept him from “blanking” on names as frequently.
As he says, “With these techniques, I know I blank [roughly] 50 percent less often than without using the techniques, but more importantly, I'm often able to recover and rediscover the name before my blanking causes embarrassment.”
Here are Rollag’s six steps:
1. Relax--most of us are bad with names.
There is plenty of evidence in Rollag’s book to support the contention that we are not wired to remember names easily. As he writes, “Our prehistoric brains are not hardwired to remember names well, and introductions are probably the worst time to hear, learn, and try to commit a name to memory.”
It is comforting to know this, and it should relieve the pressure to think you must be superb at remembering new names.
2. Pay attention to the name before you meet.
There are often opportunities to connect names and faces before you meet somebody.
For those who teach, there are tools like Blackboard that include pages with the photos and names of students in the class along with brief biographical information about them.
If you are going to a conference, sometimes you can obtain the list of attendees and look them up on LinkedIn before you meet them.
Rollag likes to test himself with the photos as if they were flashcards. “I religiously review lists of people before I go into classes and meetings. I cut out the Photo Roster pictures and go through them like flashcards before every class to get them into memory. I do the same for meetings where I think there will be people who I might blank on,” he says.
Such priming can make it easier to remember someone when you meet face to face.
3. Repeat the name during the introduction and mentally test your recall to make sure it’s in your short-term memory.
The challenge in remembering names at the time of that meeting is that there is a risk that you’ll hear the name--it goes into what Rollag calls echoic memory for a few seconds--and then forget it.
To keep that from happening, you should repeat the name to yourself right after you hear it to boost the chances that it will go to your short-term working memory.
Once you’ve done that, test yourself to see if you remember the name during the conversation.
As Rollag explains, “Most of the time, I ask for their name at the end of the conversation, usually just to make sure I haven't confused it with another name, and also to repeat my name (because I've learned that it's almost always appreciated).”
4. Write down the name as soon as you can.
Your ultimate goal should be to get that name into your long-term memory.
There are many ways to try to do that, but for Rollag, the way that works best “is to get the names down on paper, so you can study and learn them later. For years, I’ve carried a small black notebook in my back pocket where I write names.”
5. Link the name to a vivid image and test the link repeatedly.
Another technique for securing a name in long-term memory is to associate it with a vivid image (for example, you could conjure up the image of a dripping ice cream cone for the name Cohan).
Such vivid imagery can work, but Rollag believes it’s hard for people to pull off during introductions. As he says, “For most people it's really hard to use vivid imagery techniques during introductions. I can't really use them much during introductions, as there is too much going on.”
6. If you forget a name, search your lists or re-introduce yourself.
Rollag’s little black book has saved him many times. “When I see someone in the distance coming my way and I suddenly realize I'm blanking on their name, I sneak off someplace so I can pull out my notebook. And usually, I don't have a problem recognizing the right name,” he says.
And he is now less embarrassed to admit he has forgotten a name. As he says, “If I blank on a name, I've gotten better at just admitting it and asking again, though it's still embarrassing. Fortunately, it happens less and less as I've written more names down.”
Use these six techniques to boost your chances of making a good second impression.