I have a freakish memory for names, dates, and personal details about people. Always have. It’s come in handy more than you might expect. It also can be a lot of fun to mess with people in this way. For a stretch when I lived in Chicago, I made a point to wear the same exact outfit to the dentist for both appointments every year for 4 straight years. No one else noticed, but I got a kick out of it.
If we’ve ever met in person, I can likely tell you the exact date on which it happened, the things we talked about, maybe what shirt you were wearing, and definitely anything you ate or drank. That last one is a mystery to me, but being able to grab a new friend their drink of choice without being reminded is a quick way to win people’s hearts.
This Rain Man like ability does have a lot of practical utility when it comes to meeting people and making new connections. Although this is just something I’ve done innately for years and years, there is, once I gave some thought about how I was making all of this happen, a method to the madness that you can repeat.
1. Stop saying that you’re bad at names!
This is by far the number one thing that stops people from learning other people’s names. They will emphatically tell you that they’re “just awful at remembering names!”
Here’s why this gets your introduction off on the wrong foot:
- It tells the person you’re meeting that they’re not worth a little extra on your part to make their name stick.
- It smacks of arrogance because no doubt the person saying this would like you to know their name.
- It makes the conversation about you and your goldfish like memory. It’s self-absorbed right off the bat. Not a great way to start a relationship.
- It lets the person saying it absolve themselves of responsibility for learning other people’s names, there’s no consequences if they don’t remember a name, so they don’t.
- Quick sidenote: by “consequences” I mean a brief moment of discomfort when you might have to say, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I totally am spacing on your name right now. Could you please remind me?”
2. As soon as you hear someone say their name, shake their hand, smile, and say it back to them with thoughtful intention.
This step is crucial. This is where you take the time to make this person feel important, heard, and excited to meet you, too. It helps to say their name like it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it — obviously there’s a limit to this. Don’t drag it out like crazy, but say it like you mean it. This is also the time to make sure that you’re using the correct pronunciation.
I’ve noticed that a lot of times, people aren’t paying close attention when someone is introducing themselves. I think the person receiving the introduction might feel nervous about meeting someone or they are more concerned about saying their name for the other person to get right.
Your name can wait. Make it about the other person up front. This shows people that you’re interested and invested in them as people, not just a networking opportunity.
Saying a name back to someone is also very helpful if the person you’re meeting has a unique name. You can say it back to them slowly to make sure that you got it. It’s better to ask about pronunciation upfront rather than try to muddle your way through it when it’s time to part ways.
3. Make as many associations in your head with this person’s name as you can. Do it quickly.
“Hey, my name is Jim.”
“Jim, (pause, look him in eyes, smile) so great to meet you.”
In my head: “My brother in law’s name is Jim. (picture my brother in law doing / being something specific – for instance, my brother in law is a Marine, so maybe I’ll think of him in his uniform), look at new Jim’s face, picture Marine Jim, look back at new Jim. Jim is a character on The Office, and I love that show. New Jim looks like he’s in great shape, I bet he goes to the gym. Jim at the gym.”
One caveat to this approach — don’t tell the person you’re meeting what associations are going on in your head. There is no good way for people to respond to them, and the resulting awkwardness rarely transpires into a fun conversation. Just trust me on this.
I’m married to a man named Ashton and can tell you that I’ve heard the same comment about his name hundreds of times. He’s no doubt heard it thousands of times.
“Hey, I’m Ashton.”
“Oh, wow, like Ashton Kutcher!”
Woah, first time ever hearing that, pal!
A friend of mine named Leeann was once seriously asked if she was related to the singer LeeAnn Rimes. She then went on to explain to this grown adult person that that’s not how first names work.
Make the association as crazy as it takes to stick, but don’t tell the person what’s going on behind the scenes no matter how benign. They don’t care about how you remember their name, but they do care that you do remember their name.
4. Say their name slowly and intentionally one more time before parting ways.
This one is super simple and obvious, but once the conversation is wrapping up, say the person’s name again with intention. Look them in the eye while you do it.
“Jim, thanks for chatting. Great to meet you.”
This part often gets rushed for a bunch of reasons, but try to make it slow and intentional.
The thing to keep in mind with all of these suggestions is that by spending more time focusing on the other person, is that you become more memorable. People will meet loads of people who don’t take the time to remember a single thing about the people that come through their lives, but if you’re willing to be present and make the effort, you’ll stand out among masses.