What’s in a Name? (Lots!)

Here are some great tips for helping you jog your memory when meeting someone for the second time.

Do you have difficulty recalling people’s names? If your answer is “yes, then you are in good company.

Most of us find name recall daunting, and for good reason. First, there are a multitude of names we need to remember. Second, names are arbitrary — there is nothing about a person that cues you as to his or her name. Have you every noticed that it’s easy to recognize faces of people we’ve met before, but much more difficult to recall their names? Faces are visual, but names are verbal and our brains can much more easily recognize pictures than recall words.

Pay Attention

The most probable reason for difficulty recalling names is simply that we don’t pay enough attention. Your mind may be momentarily distracted by any number of things. If attention is not selectively given to the name when it is said, it will not enter short-term memory. So the first step for improving name recall: Be intentional about paying attention when the name is spoken.

If the situation allows, repeat the name silently to yourself and/or use it out loud in conversation. If the name is an unfamiliar or unusual one, you might ask for its spelling and visualize the name in writing. Or, as the name is said, visualize a tag (on the person) bearing the name in big, bold letters.

Connect the Name

Use association to connect the name with something or someone familiar to you. The name might remind you of a relative, neighbor or celebrity who has the same name. Or perhaps it is identical or similar to the name of an object, occupation or product for which you can easily form an image, such as Nichols (nickels) or Wolf, Baker or Carpenter and Campbell (soup) or Ford (car).

Put Your Imagination to Work

Use your imagination to convert names into memorable images. For example, you can visualize a collie for Collins, man cow ski for Mankowski and rose-belt for Roosevelt. For better recall of first names, you might decide ahead of time what image to associate with a name. Julie can be converted to jewel, Margaret to margarine, Dennis to tennis and Kevin to caveman.

Tips for Remembering Names

  • Intentionally pay attention
  • Use association with someone or something
  • Convert names into images
  • Visualize features as familiar image
  • Convert features to the familiar

The last step is to engage in elaborative encoding. Focus on the person’s appearance, observing any outstanding features. Then visualize your image for the name interacting in some way with one of the person’s features. For example, a gentleman with a shock of white hair may make you think of Mt. Everest, which helps you recall that his name is Everett. You might link the name Kubes to a man’s square-shaped face and remember Mr. Swindle by his handlebar moustache (swindler). Perhaps Julie’s eyes sparkle like jewels, or Bill is very tall and long-legged.

Be Fun and Effective

A strategy that’s both fun and effective is to think of an adjective describing the person that begins with the same letter as his or her first or last name. For example, if Alice has fluffy, golden hair framing her face like a halo, you can remember her as Angel Alice. A boy named Matt who sports one of those spiky hairdos can be recalled as Messy-haired Matt. An animated woman might be recalled as Vivacious Vickie, and a statuesque, perfectly groomed woman can be remembered as Debutante Deb. Alternatively, the adjective could rhyme with the name, as in Curly Shirley if she has curly hair, or Slim Jim if he is of slender build.

For some names, you’ll want to create an image of an action, such as using magic markers to draw a beard on Mark’s clean-shaven face, or hanging little red shoes from Dorothy’s earlobes as earrings (ruby shoes from the Wizard of Oz.)

So, what’s in a name? Ask yourself that question if you are serious about improving your ability to recall names. When you meet someone, pay attention to his or her name and appearance, make associations and use elaboration to create images that link the name with the person. This causes your brain to engage in deeper processing of the name, so even if you aren’t able to come up with a perfect association or image, the elaborative encoding will increase the probability of your remembering the name!

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