Key Areas For Memory Improvement
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Remembering Names
“I remember your face, but I can’t recall your name.”

Sound familiar? How about the times when you are with a friend and meet another acquaintance. Does your mind go into panic mode because you know you will have to make introductions and suffer the humiliation of having to say “I’m sorry but I forgot your name”. Are you ever introduced to someone and not be able to recall their name just moments later? Most people have suffered the uncomfortable anxiety that occurs when they want to remember someone’s name but cannot. Whether it is at a business function, social gathering, or the supermarket the results are the same, awkward moments! You might be able to get away with using the old Hollywood trick of calling everyone ‘dear’ from time to time but eventually you will be perceived as shallow and insincere.

Remembering people’s names is often the primary motivation for exploring memory training. Everyone likes to hear their name so remembering and using them will help you to build better relationships, enhance credibility, and establish trust.

So why is it that you are so good at remembering faces but not names? There are actually a few contributing factors.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of paying attention! It is important that you differentiate between hearing and listening. Really listening when you are being introduced to someone and focusing your attention can significantly improve recall. The problem is that your inner voice uses the same auditory resources as your external ear. So if you are having inner dialogue such as thinking about what you are going to say next, how you are being perceived, etc. it is very difficult to be truly listening.

Earlier you learned that we think in pictures. Hear the word elephant or pencil and you can immediately visualize one. We rarely forget the names of things we can visualize. People’s names on the other hand are abstract and therefore it is not easy to form a mental image to associate with them.

To help you remember people’s names you must utilize your abilities of encoding and association.

Let’s start with the basics:
  1. Greet people by looking them straight in the face.
  2. Concentrate and force yourself to really ‘listen’ to the other person’s name.
  3. If you didn’t hear it correctly or it is an unusual name with a difficult pronunciation politely ask the person to repeat their name. Showing sincere interest is never offensive.
  4. Within 5 second of hearing the name say it internally.
  5. Between pauses in the conversation reinforce the name by repeating it internally.
  6. Use the person’s name in conversation but be careful not to over do it. An easy beginning would be to say “it’s a pleasure to meet you George”.
  7. If appropriate exchange business cards so that you will have a written record. Otherwise, later when you have an opportunity, write down the names of all the people you had met in a contact or address book along with any information about the individual you would like to remember for future reference.
Following these simple techniques will encode someone’s name at a deeper level and greatly improve your ability to recall the name.

Association is the other technique you can use to remember people’s names. It is association (usually in conjunction with the peg system) which allows memory performers to recall the names of an entire audience after hearing the names just once.

Because names are abstract we must create associations based on vivid mental images. One possibility is to associate the individual to a certain set of circumstances derived from their name. For example:

You meet a man named Donald Jollimore. To help remember his name you might picture Donald wearing the same blue hat that Donald Duck wears. To associate the last name he could be on a stage singing “for he’s a Jolly good fellow” (in Donald Duck’s voice of course!) over and over again while the audience yells “More”!

How about Mary Robinski. The last name is fairly straightforward because Robinski sounds almost like rubbing ski. You might picture Mary in a wedding gown (Marry) holding a ski she is furiously rubbing so that it will be perfectly shiny for the wedding.

Another popular technique is to identify one unique or significant characteristic about the individual’s appearance. Usually you would use the face because this is the main thing you want to associate with the name. Try to pick a unique facial feature or one which will be easy to elaborate upon. Large nose, big ears, bald head, red hair, etc. This is your internal system so pick whatever feature you like. They will be the ‘peg’ upon which you will create your name association.

Next, you create an image based on the person’s name. For some names this is relatively easy to do. For others you must use the keyword mnemonic technique and pick substitute words to represent the person’s name.

Let’s try a few examples:

You are introduced to Mark Green and note that Mark has very curly hair. A simple association would be to visualize a very large amount of bright ’Green’ curly hair on his head. Then you could add a large X to the middle of his forehead because you know that X ‘Marks’ the spot.

Names that have associations to objects or things are obviously much easier to use. Names such as Brown, Bush, Wells, or Hill require only elaboration. Substitute words must be employed for other names.

Jennifer O’Brien seems like a very nice person. Those dimples in her cheeks when she smiles only enhance her friendly disposition. You imagine two shamrocks instead of dimples to remind you of her Irish name. Jennifer sounds like Jen-in-fur so you picture her dressed in a thick fur coat with her initial, a giant ‘J’ sewn on the front.

Later you meet Ellen Weagle. Ellen is wearing beautiful diamond earrings. You could visualize the earrings as the letters ‘L’ and ‘N’ which are covered in diamonds. Weagle sounds like wiggle so the earrings are hard to see because they are always wiggling.

And finally you are introduced to Richard Shaw. Richard has a very nice smile and perfect teeth. You exaggerate the smile and imagine a dollar sign on each tooth to signify ‘rich’. Shaw sounds like shawl so you can picture Richard wearing a very expensive shawl.

Regardless of your approach the objective is to convert the abstract name into a memorable visual image. You use encoding and elaboration to strengthen the associations.

Hint: You may want to keep the associations you create private. Telling someone that you remember their name because they have a big nose could strain a relationship!

Start slowly and learn to employ these techniques with the people in your life or the people you meet. You can set a goal of remembering 5 names each week or 5 names from one group and continue to build from there.

As you learn to remember names you will discover that the techniques you use will become almost second nature.

Tips For Educators and Groups
Most instructors know the value of relationship building in the teaching process. They also know that learning their students names is instrumental in creating these relationships. It has a significant impact on a student’s success in the classroom. In addition to the techniques you have already learned, here are a few other tips you may find helpful (note: these tips may not be practical in large lecture classes).
  • Create name tags on card weight paper that can be folded into a tent. Have each student write their name in bold marker and place it on their desk. At the end of the class the instructor collects the tags (strengthening association) and hands them out at the next class to test and further strengthen the association. Alternatively you can use name tags that the students wear.
  • Have the students say their name before speaking. This will help the instructor as well as the other students in the class to learn everyone’s name.
  • Digital cameras and computer technology within school systems are providing many educators with a convenient print-out of names and faces. If available you can also use this technology to allow students to create their own passports using their photo or create a sheet of faces with lines to fill in the names making it a game for everyone.
  • Ask students to maintain the same seating location for the first couple of weeks until you have mastered their names.
  • Build a class web page with student photos and link it to the school’s web site.
Play a Name Game
Learning names in a classroom or group setting can be turned into a fun exercise and provide a convenient ‘ice-breaker’.
  • Have each person introduce themselves and give one example of something they like i.e. “My name is Betty and I like Horses”. The next person gives the name of the people before them and what they like. They then introduce themselves and so on. This works best if you divide large groups into ‘working groups’ of 6 - 10 people. Then the instructor or leader holds the end of a ball of string and tosses the ball to someone. Each person who tosses the ball would say something like “I’m tossing the ball to Betty because Betty likes horses”, etc. This continues until everyone is ‘connected’.
  • A similar game uses a ball. Everyone sits or stands in a circle and is encouraged to listen and make eye contact with the person speaking. The instructor or leader gives their name and passes the ball to the next person. That person says the instructor’s name, their name, and passes the ball. The next person says the instructor’s name, the previous person’s name, and their name. This continues until the circle is completed with the first person attempting to say all of the names. Everyone is encouraged to help anyone who gets stuck on a name. At the end the ball is rolled or tossed randomly among the circle with the person saying the other person’s name who they are passing the ball to. For extra name reinforcement you can scramble the group and continue passing the ball until everyone has been named.
These name games are often very successful because of the attention that people place on the introductions being made. Under normal circumstances most people are a bit anxious leading up to their turn to introduce themselves and then relax after doing so. There is no strong benefit for paying attention or perceived cost involved for not paying attention to the other introductions. With the name games people must remember the names of those who have gone before. As the game progresses everyone is practicing internal retrievals of the names in preparation for their turn or the possibility that they too may be called upon to remember all the names. This ‘fear factor’ sharpens everyone’s concentration and personalizes the need to remember.


Quick Review:
  • There is a difference between hearing and listening.
  • Inner dialogue competes with your ability to listen.
  • There are 7 basic steps to help you remember names.
  • Names are abstract and hard to visualize so you use Association to create vivid images and aid name recall.
  • Association can be based on the name and incorporate substitute words.
  • An individual’s facial characteristics can be used as a ‘peg’ to anchor the association.
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