How to Remember Names

Despite the Baker/baker paradox, you can beat your biology and learn to remember names.

Here’s the second installment of my series of Toastmaster speeches on memory.

Mr. Toastmaster, ladies and gentlemen:

How many times do you meet someone, and it goes great, you make a splendid impression. And then, five minutes later, you have no idea what her name is.

You know her face. You could probably recognize her in twenty years. But if you suddenly had to introduce her, it would be one of those horrible, “Hey! This is my new friend — whose name I completely forget.”

The truth is, almost everybody is “great with faces, terrible with names.” Scientists actually study this. It means you’re a normal human being.

So tonight, I want to give you a few ways to beat your biology, and actually remember names.

The first way to remember names is the most important. Ready? It’s a big secret. Hear the name. Hear the name. You can’t remember a name if you never hear it to begin with.

Meeting someone is just about the worst possible way to learn their name. In those first few seconds, you’re not listening, you’re looking. You’re making snap judgments. Tentative eye contact. Scanning for concealed weapons. By the time your ears turn back on, the name is long gone. You’re halfway through some boring anecdote.

And if you’re even slightly nervous — forget it. You can’t hear anything. Your own brain is barking orders. “Don’t forget to smile! [smile] Shake hands! [stick out hand]! Be funny! [groan]”

And then we’re all surprised that we don’t catch the name.

So you need to focus. You need to consciously decide, I am going to hear this person’s name.

Some books suggest that you also seal the deal by repeating the name. “Jane! It’s so good to meet you, Jane. Think it looks like rain, Jane?” I think you should definitely repeat the name to yourself. I’d hesitate to strain the conversation. Other people read these books too.

Once you hear the name, and repeat it, you have a new problem. How do you connect this random name to this particular face?

Scientists have studied this too. They call it the “Baker/baker paradox.” That’s “Baker”, uppercase, the last name, slash “baker”, lowercase, a maker of bread. Scientists have found that if you learn some guy’s name is Baker, you’re much less likely to remember this, compared to if he is a baker. It’s the exact same sound. But one fades away, while the other sticks, like wet dough.

Why? Perhaps because being a baker gives you an instant series of visuals. You see him covered in powder, wearing a big funny white hat. Lots of connections between “baker” and him. But the name “Baker” doesn’t do any of that. The name is completely abstract.

So how do you use this neurological quirk? If you meet someone named Baker, imagine him as a baker. Give him that big hat. Douse him in dough.

A professional magician named Harry Lorayne used to memorize the names of his entire audience. Now, not all names are as easy to visualize as “Baker.” In one of his books, Lorayne lists hundreds of common names, and gives a crazy visual pun for each. “Buckley” becomes “buckle”, “Brewster” becomes “rooster”, “Daniels” becomes “Dan yells”.

Lorayne recommands that you pick a distinctive feature of the new face, and attach your memory prompt to that. If Brewster has a big nose, perch the rooster on that nose and watch him peck.

My name is Bill Powell, so you could wrap a huge towel around my big head, like a floppy crown, and then stuff a gigantic hundred dollar bill in the top. Bill Powell.

As you might guess, you probably want to keep your little creations to yourself.

Now, what if you don’t like the idea of making everyone you meet into a Far Side cartoon? Another approach is to get interested in names. We forget names because, to us, they’re almost meaningless. But if you’ve ever dipped into one of those baby name books, you know that every name has a meaning, and a history, and connections to other names.

If you really want to remember someone’s name, why not look it up when you get home? Or even get an app for your phone? Think about how the name connects, both to that person and to other names you already know. As we know from our “baker” friends, the more connections you can make, the better you’ll remember.

So, let’s make each other’s names into a fascinating hobby, instead of a constant source of anxiety.

Make sure you hear the name.

Repeat the name, to yourself, and optionally out loud.

And then attach the name to the face, either with a goofy cartoon pun, or by learning more about the name itself.

With a little practice, you’ll be the life of the party. In fact, you’ll be doing all the introductions, for everyone else, for the rest of your life.

Mr. Toastmaster.

You might also enjoy: “Remember names by collecting them”, which further describes the hobby of learning names.

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