It never fails for me.
I meet someone new. I shake hands. I smile. We exchange names. We chat. We part ways. I feel like I had a good time.
Except then I can't even remember the name of the person I had a good time with.
The sequence has played out for me dozens of times. And every time, I wear my proverbial cone of shame, knowing the next time we run into each other, I'll have to admit my memory failed me and ask who they are again.
I'm guessing this sounds pretty familiar to you, and that, like me, you've probably had an awkward moment where you realized you couldn't introduce the new person next to you if asked.
Why names are so crazy hard to recall
There are three major issues that can compound to throw a new name out the window.
1. Trouble listening--Exchanging names is a very basic social script. But, as in any conversation, you might not actively listen. Instead, you might concentrate on your own response. So if someone offers their name to you first, you might be preparing for your own turn (e.g., "Do I say 'Hello, my name is ... ?' or maybe 'I'm [name]. Nice to meet you ... ?'"), rather than really processing their title. Thinking about your agenda (e.g., to sell them on Product X) rather than the person interferes with active listening, as well.
2. Distractions--Even if you're doing your best to really hear what the other person is saying, your brain can go chasing novelties nearby. You might get distracted by the conspicuous mole above their eyebrow, for instance, realize your palms are grossly sweaty, or see Elon Musk's doppelganger float into your peripheral vision.
3. Stress--The hormone cortisol is a double agent when it comes to memory. It makes it easy to remember stressor-related information. But it also makes it hard to recall information that isn't related to your stressor. This is supposed to keep you safe. If a lion just chased you, for example, you need to be processing how fast that sucker was so you can survive if it happens again, not worrying about what's on your grocery list. So if you meet someone in the morning, have a heated meeting in the afternoon, and then run into the new person again right after the meeting, your brain can give you a big "nope" when you try to pull up their name.
4 ways to make names unforgettable
1. Give the name meaning. During learning, the brain will try to make associations between new information and old information. But this doesn't have to be a passive process--you can form associations actively. For example, you might meet someone named Diana and think of Lady Diana and the royals, or maybe Diana also was your grandmother's name.
2. Get silly. Remember, the brain adores novelty. So as you try to make associations, it's good to be goofy. For example, picture Anna as a banana. And while rhymes work, you also can mix the name with something distinguishable you notice about the person. For instance, if Anna Goldstead has a cute nose, you can imagine bananas with golden noses growing in a flower bed.
3. Push repeat. Repetition helps your brain lay down and thicken the neural pathways you need for recall. And researchers now know that repeating something aloud to remember it is most effective if you do the repeating in front of someone else. That's because your brain associates what you're repeating with sensory information related to the interaction on top of the physical feedback (e.g., moving your mouth, vocal cord vibration).
Say the name of the person you meet as soon as you can after you meet them, such as "It's nice to meet you, Eric." Then weave it into the conversation naturally, such as "Eric, I couldn't agree more" or "Eric, do you enjoy ... ?" Make sure you say it again as you leave, such as "I look forward to seeing you again, Eric." Then, at the end of the day, review, ideally by telling someone else about the interaction, such as "Today, I met Eric Holt from Quanica Sales."
4. Make a request. Simply admit that names aren't your thing. Then ask if they have a business card that can help, or ask for a moment to write their name on a piece of paper. Studies show that "old school" writing works better for memory than digital.
And while it's bolder, you can also ask the person for permission to snap a photo and quickly edit their name onto it. This way, you also get some visual stimulation when you review the name later.
Or just come clean and ask them to bear with you as you ask for their name a few times through the conversation. Most people will appreciate the candid admission and graciously humor you in return for your sincere attempt to remember.
Remembering names can be tough, but a little effort with these tricks might improve your batting average. Pull them out next time you network or are introduced and see how you do. I'll be joining you!