One of the best ways to make a favorable first impression — and to get ahead socially or in business — is to remember people’s names.

“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
-Dale Carnegie

You can improve your ability to remember names if you follow these four steps:

1. Commit

Begin by making a commitment — a conscious decision — to remember people’s names.

Don’t let yourself off easy, blaming a “bad memory.” Forgetting names is due less to a bad memory than to a lack of application. Tell yourself — because it’s true — that you can remember names if you want to and if you work at it.

Before going to a meeting or a party or anywhere you might meet people, remind yourself of your commitment. And recommit yourself: “I will make my best effort to remember the names of the people I meet.”

2. Concentrate

You can only remember what you observe in the first place. If you are distracted or if you aren’t paying attention, you won’t register the person’s name so you can’t possibly remember it. Concentrate, then, on 1) paying attention to the person’s name when you first hear it, and 2) forming an impression of the person.

  • Listen to the person’s name. If you miss it or find a few seconds later that you’ve already forgotten it, say “I’m sorry I missed your name. Can you give it to me again?” If you still have trouble with it, say, “I’m sorry, but would you spell that out for me?”
  • Get a clear, detailed impression of the person.
    The more vividly you observe people’s physical characteristics, the more likely you are to remember them. Use all of your senses to form the most striking impression possible.

3. Repeat

Repetition helps engrave the name in your memory.

  • Use the name immediately.
  • Repeat it silently to yourself.
  • Comment on the name, if possible.
  • Use it occasionally in the conversation without overdoing it.
  • Use it when leaving.
  • Write it down afterwards.

4. Associate

Try to make an association between the person’s face and an image the name suggests. If you exaggerate the image — make it larger, say — and give it movement — have it slam into some feature of the person’s face, for example — you will make the image even more memorable.

Even if you can’t create an image for the name, don’t despair. Just by working on it, just by trying to figure out an image that goes along with the name, you have reinforced your memory.

If you remember visual images most easily, try creating an image based on the name and linking it to some physical characteristic of the person.

  • Imagine a ham that weighs a ton spinning on the end of Mrs. Hamilton’s nose.
  • Picture an old-fashioned car jack under Jack’s prominent jaw.
  • See margarine melting through Margaret’s curly, blond hair.

If you are more attuned to sounds, make a rhyme, associating the name with your impression of the person. Or link the person’s name to a song lyric.

  • Dave needs a shave.
  • Latrice is Patty’s niece.
  • Michelle, ma belle. (The Beatle’s tune)

If you are more comfortable dealing with sensory feelings and gut instincts, try linking the name to the impression the person makes or to a reaction you have to the person.

  • Martin Peck is a pain in the neck.
  • Suzanne Patterson has sweaty palms.
  • Paula is pushy.

All this takes time and energy and that’s the point. It makes people feel important. It wins you their good will. And it opens the door to successful relationships.

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See also Communication Tips.

Chris Witt, a coach based in San Diego, works with executives and with technical experts who want to give more effective presentations. If you’re interested in learning more about how you could benefit from his coaching, contact him for a complimentary call.