I suck at names.
I’ll meet you at an event, you’ll tell me your name, and in five minutes I’ll have forgotten it. I’ll then pray that someone else remembers your name and uses it to remind me. I’ve always envied the people who appear naturally able to remember the names of everyone they interact with.
It’s useful! In How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie has a whole chapter dedicated to why it’s important to use someone’s name in conversation with them.
“Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
Used appropriately it shows someone that you care enough to remember their name, which in turn makes them like you more.
I was recently part of a week-long event where it was useful to memorize 80+ people’s names extremely quickly. I mentioned the idea of trying to memorize all of their names over a weekend casually to a friend, and when he challenged me that he didn’t think I could do it I of course had to.
The brute force tactics I’ve used in the past would clearly not suffice. I would need to find a better method.
I stole this idea from a post on language learning written by Benny Lewis (polyglot and author of the book Fluent in 3 Months) here. The whole post isn’t necessary, but the section on making words more memorable through image and story association (section #7) is extremely important.
I’ll lift the example that he uses. Let’s say you want to remember the Spanish word “caber” which means “to fit.” The traditional school-taught method would be to drill that association over and over again until you memorized it… but that’s ridiculous. The example Benny gives, taken from Memrise, is MUCH more memorable. Simply remember this image and phrase:
The image and phrase have everything. “BEAR” and “CAB” together can make “CAB-BEAR” or “caber,” and “barely possible to fit” reminds you that “caber” means “to fit.” This works in both directions, whether you’re trying to remember what “to fit” is in Spanish or what “caber” is in English. I read that article the day it was posted last March and I still remember what caber means just because of that image.
We’re going to take that same method and apply it to remembering names. For each name-face association you want to remember, you’re going to create an image in your head that’s as hard to forget as possible.
The easiest way to do this is, for a given person, to imagine them being best friends with and doing some sort of activity with someone you know who has the same name. Maybe they’re riding a roller coaster, getting ice cream, whatever it takes to make it memorable. The important thing is that they’re both in it so that when you see this person’s face you instantly think of the person you already know, and poof there’s their name.
But what about someone with an uncommon name where you don’t have any existing friends with the same name? I’ll give two examples.
Memories degrade with time. Regardless of how vivid an image you create, you will eventually forget it, which is why we’re going to steal another trick from language learning fanatics.
Immediately after you learn something, your chance of recall (remembering it accurately) is near 100%. Over time, depending on the quality of the memory, that chance erodes. Every time you remind yourself of the information, that chance of recall goes back up to near 100%, and the rate of erosion decreases.
The first time you learn something it might drop to 20% recall chance in a day, but if you remind yourself of it tomorrow it might now take 4 days to get down to 20% recall. Remind yourself of it in another 4 days and now it’s in your head for 10, and so on. If you were to graph it, this is what it’d look like (credit to wikia):
Properly spaced reminders of the information solidifies it in your long term memory
Since we can’t get everyone in a room at the exact right intervals, we have to supplement the face-to-face interactions. Again, we can borrow from language learners. To accomplish this they use “Spaced Repetition Software.” At first glance it looks like another flashcard app, but beneath it is a predictive learning algorithm that can estimate how long it will take you to forget something based on your subjective assessment of how easy or hard it was to remember. Then it brings the flash card back up in your queue right before you forget it, so you remind yourself and further solidify it in your long term memory.
The best piece of software for this is called “Anki” (www.ankisrs.net), which is available on all platforms and free everywhere except on iOS. Simply install it, then start creating flashcards for every person you want to remember.
On one side, I’ll put their picture (LinkedIn is better than Facebook for this), and if I’m using a story to help me remember their name I’ll include a picture that relates to the story (like a screenshot of Deal or No Deal, or a fireplace). Then on the other side just put their name along with whatever other information you want to remember. It’ll look something like this:
What a good looking guy.
The longest part of this process is making the cards. Once they’re made, practicing the names doesn’t take more than 10 minutes a day, even with 100 names. Every day that you review them your recall will improve, but it’s important that you space it out over a few days and follow the software’s scheduling to make sure it’s truly going into your long term memory. That means start early. Don’t try to learn them all last minute.
Now, here’s the catch. Using this method I was confident with 80+ people’s names after about 3 days of repetitions. It worked perfectly. For the first time in my life people were telling me “oh wow, you’re really good with names.” Then something weird happened…
There’s a theory called “Dunbar’s Number” which states that there is a limit to the number of people anyone can maintain a social relationship with, and that number is around 150. This is why the social networking app “Path” only lets you have 150 friends. Now I know that there’s a difference between having a social relationship and simply remembering someone’s name, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there’s a limit (300? 500?) to the number of names that the average person can keep straight in their head.
Around day 3 I hit that limit. I was walking to get tea, and I ran into someone I see every week or two. I had completely forgotten her name. I imagine you, like me, have never had that experience before: looking at someone you know relatively well, who you see frequently, and having absolutely no idea what their name is. Naturally I felt terrible about it.
The next day I noticed I couldn’t remember the last names of at least a dozen closer friends. I had their first names… but the last names were gone. Whatever the limit is to the number of names you can keep in your working memory I was past it and my mind had started chucking out less frequently used ones to make space. Who knows how many remote acquaintances’ names I forgot.
So considering that downside, I would advise against using this trick for remembering the names of people you won’t see frequently. Given what I know now I’d only use it if I were moving to a new city, joining a new club/organization, starting a new job, or maybe taking a new discussion-based class. It’s simply not worth the risk if you’re not going to need all of those names indefinitely.
That said, it’s still a pretty cool trick.
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.