How to remember people's names better, from world memory champions

The memory is a strange thing. You might feel your brain is full of useless information, but is like a sieve when learning ‘important’ things.

Remembering trivia or random facts can help during a pub quiz, but if you’re struggling to recall basics it can end in an awkward situation.

Names are one of those things, and although we’re all guilty of forgetting the odd acquaintance, it still feels rude to ask again after being told.

Since most of us don’t have an assistant (a la Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada) to tell us who people are, we’re relying on our own mental abilities to put names to faces.

That’s not easy to imagine if you feel like you naturally have a bad memory.

However, we spoke to a number of experts across the world, and it it turns out there are simple ways to improve your memorising capabilities – particularly useful at work events, parties, or anywhere you’ll be a meeting a lot of people.

Here are their top tips to remember names:

Remember to remember

It seems obvious, but often we’re not focused when we first hear people’s names, which is why we forget.

Memory expert Ron White tells ‘Believe it or not the biggest challenge to remembering names is not your memory it is your focus.

‘When you meet people you are thinking: What do I think of them? What do they think of me? What business deals are we going to do? Have I met them before? Do I look ok?

‘As you are thinking this they say their name and you never hear it!’

His world-renowned memorising technique starts with focusing, with Ron saying: ‘As you walk to the person, replace the old questions above with a new question: What is their name?).

‘This simple question will focus your brain. My hint? Say it silently to yourself’

Use word association

Katie Kermode, 43, is a double World Record holder for remembering names, getting 105 in 5 minutes and 224 in 15 minutes.

She – like others we chatted to – recommends using a mnemonic device, telling ‘Find something that the name reminds you of and try to associate that with the person. It’s easy with names like Rose – you can just imagine that they love roses, smell of roses, or are wearing one in their hair.

‘In most cases though, you have to be more creative. Rhyming is a good technique – Dave likes to wave, Ella always carries an umbrella, John goes on and on.

‘You can also adapt the name slightly or use a small part of it – Sandra has sand in her hair, Lisa is a great listener.’

Connect the word to an image

Ronald Johnson, 33, Memory Athlete and host of The Craft of Memory podcast says you can then take this further, creating an image in your head you then assign to that person.

For his own name, for example, the initial word association might have connected you to McDonald’s. He advises attaching this to an image, like a french fry.

From there, he says you can ‘attach this image onto a prominent facial feature’, so if the Ronald in question had a big nose, you might imagine ‘that french fries are being stuffed up his nose, so much so that it goes up to his eyes and pops his eyeball out which lands bloody on the floor.’

Why the gore? Ronald adds: ‘The key for remembering is to not merely create the image, but to make it dramatic, bizarre, and absurd.

‘The goal is to make it unforgettable. If an elephant walked up to your house and shot a basketball out of his trunk through your window, that moment would be literally unforgettable.’

Using Katie’s Sandra example, you’re imagining sand due to the name. You then ascribe that to a feature.

Say she has big blue eyes, Ronald says imagining her eyes turning into sand while she runs around the room should create that lasting unforgettable quality.

Compare to what you know

If you’re struggling to create a word association from the person’s name, comparing them to a friend or celebrity you do know can help.

Ronald continues: ‘If you just met Matt, and you are trying to remember his name, perhaps this Matt is short but you know another Matt who is six feet tall.

‘In this case, you imagine a short Matt as a tall Matt. You can imagine his legs stretching like bubble gum, he goes so high into the air, and when he walks he starts crashing into buildings, walls tear off and crumble, crashing to the floor.’

A Britney could link to Britney Spears, so you’d create an image of something absurd in relation – like her loudly singing the ‘oh baby baby’ until a baby comes out of her mouth.

Use a prompt if you forget

If they’ve told you their name and it’s already out of your mind, there are some sneaky ways to re-check.

Daniel Timms, Mental Calculation Coach and decade-long professional Mind Sports player says: ‘Practise prompting people to say their names mid-conversation when you forget, eg: “So do people often mispronounce your name?” “Well yes, in Portugal they keep calling me ‘Daniow’!” “Ah Daniel, I definitely had not forgotten your name”.’

Prompt yourself after you learn it, too, to help it stick.

Netherlands-based Art of Memory contributor Mayarra says: ‘Mention their name back at them in a sentence, preferably twice (“John, a pleasure to meet you. I was just about to head over to the bar to grab a drink, would you like one as well, John?”).

‘This forces you to think about their name a bit longer. Also repeat the name once when you leave.’

Make use of tech

We use tech in most aspects of our lives, so why should remembering names be any different?

Ronald recommends a flashcard app with a ‘spaced repetition feature’, saying this can aid lasting memory and ‘takes into account the forgetting curve’.

When you learn a name, discreetly put it into the app, so you can improve your general memory as well as those of specific people.

He says: ‘In order to keep something in “long term memory”, even memory athletes recommend spaced repetition and review.

‘I usually put their face on the front card and their name on the back card. If I don’t have a picture then I put their name on the front card with the bizarre imagery I created for them on the back.’

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself

Working on your mental acuity is a lifelong task, so try not to be hard on yourself if you forget things here and there.

Not only will a relaxed approach make social engagements more fun to be at, they’ll boost your recall skills too.

Mayarra says: ‘Often it is easier to remember names when you know more about the person. Be interested, be social. John might have a wife, a job, interests, learn them.’

They also say viewing the other person as someone important to you can help: ‘It primes the brain to be more focussed. This also helps in being more interested. Learn to view people as being someone you want to know.’

And lastly, don’t force it. If you’re so focused on your memory you’re ignoring the party, that’s no better than having to ask someone their name twice.

‘Anything social is a dance,’ says Mayarra. ‘Relax while doing it. Smile, take it easy. If you tense up and force yourself to focus, repeat, and be interested, you’ll end up not doing it.’

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