Remembering Names - Name-Face Method

It is very common to have trouble remembering names. "I'm terrible with names" is almost a cliche. This page explains the "secret" method used by memory performers to memorize dozens or even hundreds of names at a time. (This method for remembering names is not really a secret any more.)

You probably don't need to meet and remember so many people at a time. The point is that if you learn and practice the Name-Face Method (explained below), you will be able to remember the names of people you meet at work, at school, at parties, at church, or any other social gathering. And once you get the method down, it is actually quite fun and easy to use.

The Name-Face Method for remembering names, which is one of the memory systems, includes 5 basic steps. Here they are:

  1. Get the name.
  2. Make the name concrete.
  3. Find a distinctive feature on their face.
  4. Make a mental picture associating the name with the face.
  5. Review the association.

These are the steps used by every memory performer for remembering names (with slight variations).

The page below explains in detail how to do each step. But you might like to first view a summary of the technique, in a 2-minute cartoon video I made myself:


How to Remember Names

Now here are the steps in detail:

Step 1: Get the Name

Often during introductions, we simply fail to clearly hear and register the other person's name. This is a failure of attention on our part.

When being introduced to a new person, we are often more concerned about saying our own name, or shaking hands, or what the other person looks like (or maybe even how we look). To have any chance of remembering names, you obviously must hear and understand the person's name when they say it.

This takes conscious effort and may require some practice. If you don't hear the name the first time, don't be embarrassed to ask the person to repeat it. (Actually that proves you are truly interested in knowing their name. And a person's own name is the sweetest set of words in the English language - to them.) Then repeat the name back to the person to make sure you've gotten it right.

Once you are sure you've got the name, move immediately to Step 2.

Step 2: Make the Name Concrete

Making the name concrete means making it memorable (for you). For some names this will be very easy.

For example, last names like Baker, Brown, or Greenfield already have concrete meanings. For many other names, though, you will need to make "substitute words" based on the sound of the name. A name like Williams might make you think of the phrase "wild yams" (because it sounds like that). Or Janovsky could translate to "jump off ski". (The idea of using substitute words is explained futher on the Association & Visualization page.)

Thinking of substitute words will seem unnatural at first, but you will find with a little practice that it becomes very easy, quick, and even fun. A great way to practice this step until you get proficient is to go through names in your local telephone book and try to think up concrete substitutes for each.

So at this point (at the end of Step 2), you've got the name and you have given the name a concrete meaning if it doesn't already have one (remember, "wild yams" for Williams). Note that the substitute word(s) do not have to be an exact translation of the person's name. It is simply going to act as a "cue" to help you retrieve the person's name the next time you want to.

Now it's time for Step 3. (Keep in mind that when you get good at this method for rememebering names, all five steps happen in just a few seconds. Explaining it out like this makes it appear like a lot more work than it actually is.)

Step 3: Find a Face Feature

What you are going to do in the next couple of steps it tie the meaning of the name to the person themself - in particular to a memorable part of their face.

So now study the person's face closely and quicky decide which facial feature stands out the most to you. In other words, what did you notice first? Thie bushy eyebrows, big ears, or thick lower lip? Perhaps some dimples or freckles or a mole? Anything about their face that is memorable will work. (However, don't pick something changeable like their hairstyle or the way they smile that might be different the next time you meet them!)

After you've decided on the person's prominent feature - again, this should only take a moment - move on to the next step.

Step 4: Associate the Name and Face

Here's where you connect the person and their name in your memory.

Take the meaning of the name which you determined in Step 2 and think of a vivid, visual picture in your mind associating it with the facial feature you noticed in Step 3. For example, let's say Mr. Williams has a large, bulbous nose. Clearly imagine hundreds of yams pouring out of that nose. (Yes, it's a silly picture - but that makes it more memorable, too.)

Visualize this with as much detail as possible. See the yams, still covered with dirt from the field where they were growing wildly, flowing continuously from his bulbous nose.

Because most people's visual memory is naturally much stronger than their verbal memory, if you have pictured the nose-pear image clearly enough it will immediately pop into your mind when you see that person (even though many people have bulbous noses, you will easily recognize his face overall, which will provide the connection). You will see pears pouring from his nose. (If you do Step 5 below this becomes even more reliable.) Remembering and seeing "wild yams" should be a sufficient memory cue to jog your memory for his real name, "Williams".

The next and final step for remembering names is important for long-term retention of the name.

Step 5: Review the Association

It is true generally that information that is not used tends to fade from memory. To counteract this and have much better luck remembering names long-term, simply review the name periodically.

The most important time for review - as memory researchers have discovered, the period when most forgetting occurs - is immediately after being presented with the information. This forgetting literally occurs within the first few seconds or minutes. This is true with everyday facts that you might learn when studying a subject, and it also true when remembering names.

So right after meeting the new person and forming a name-face association (Steps 1-4), review the association (the image) in your mind. Perhaps 10-20 seconds afterward, re-picture the image and think again of their name. Repeat again after one minute, then after 15-20 minutes.

Increasingly spacing out the intervals works best (again, according to memory research). In addition, try to say the person's name out loud at least three times during your conversation. First, when you are being introducted ("Nice to meet you, Mr. Williams!") Then, at some point in the middle of the conversation, again ("That's a very good point, Mr. Williams.") Finally, at the end of the conversation ("Mr. Williams, it was very nice to have met you.")

Obviously you don't want to overdo it, but you get the idea. :)

Depending on the circumstances, another great way to lock the name in your memory is to actually write it down. For individuals like salespeople, teachers, or politicians, for whom remembering names for long periods of time is important for their job, keeping a written list of the people they have met is a very useful trick.

If the person is someone you think you might run into later, write down their name in your notebook. (Of course you carry around a little notebook to jot down things you want to remember, right?) This helps because it puts the spelled-out name into a visual format.

Recall that visual memory is usually stronger for most people. Also, having your name-face association, the verbal association (you said and heard the name), and seeing the name written provides three different memory paths in your brain for remembering names later.

The Name-Face Method for remembering names really does work miraculously (that's why memory performers use it), but only if you practice it. That is because this method is a skill, and like any other skill (such as playing tennis or tying your shoe or riding a bicycle), you must practice remembering names to get really good at it (in other words, you can't just read about it and hope it will work).

People with normal memories can and do use this method very successfully for remembering names. A strong natural ability for remembering names is not required at all.

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