How can you memorise people’s names?

At company meetings and conferences you often meet new people. When these people introduce themselves to you, you have to concentrate on their names and try to remember them. At least, this is how it should work. In reality it’s quite a challenge for many people to link all those new faces and their accompanying names together.

Unfortunately, it often turns out to be so difficult for us that we don’t even try, which is a huge pity because people like to listen to their own names more than anything else. Hearing your name is like music to your ears. It gives people a feeling of validation.

Good to know, but what can you do when you find it difficult to remember names?  Don’t worry, I’m going to make some suggestions that will make it possible for you to remember a large number of names in a short period of time.

You really have to want to know someone’s name

An important prerequisite to remembering other people’s names, is that you are willing to remember them. This sounds quite logical, but it isn’t. The encounters that business people have, are often  brief. In many situations it isn’t even necessary per se to address the person you are speaking to by his or her name.

This is often the reason for not making any effort to remember a new person’s name. After all, if you don’t know someone’s name you can still speak with him or her without anybody noticing. Nobody expects anyone to remember all the names of people they encounter, so no one will criticize you for not knowing their names. However, if you want to be able to remember names, then you need to develop an intrinsic interest in other people and their names.

Believe you can do it

If you want to memorise the names of a lot of people within a short period of time, you first have to convince yourself it’s really possible to do that. Many people lose their courage beforehand when they realise they will be in a large group, consisting of thirty or so people. They think: “Oh, how could I ever memorise so many names? I just can’t!”

With this mindset, they only listen to half of what other people say when they introduce themselves. They don’t make any active effort to memorise their names either.

If you convince yourself of the fact that you won’t succeed in instilling so many names in your brain, you are probably right. If you don’t believe you can, you won’t even try. Then you won’t remember thirty names, even worse, you won’t remember eight names either. When looking at a sea of many faces you will probably give up after the first person you meet.

Listen actively and concentrate

Remembering names doesn't happen as a matter of course, it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Active participation on your part of the process is needed. Primarily, you have to concentrate intensely when the other person says their name. When you meet someone for the first time, you have to process a lot of information like: how he or she looks, and what he or she will think of you, etc. Your inner voice, that speaks to you all the time, might distract you from really listening.

At the same time people do not always say their names loudly and clearly. You will notice that many people say their names quite quickly, often muttering.  It might not be intelligible at all.  One reason for that is that people actually don’t expect you to remember their name after the first greeting. They consider the introduction simply as some kind of social ritual. Therefore you’ve got to be actively involved. If you think you didn’t hear their name properly, check if you got it right. It helps to repeat their name, and ask them if you’ve understood correctly. For example you might ask: ‘Is it Caren or Carine?  

Give thought to the other person’s name

After you’ve listened to the other person’s name you have to instill that name in your memory. You have to make a mental connection between the name you’ve just heard and the person standing in front of you, and this takes time.  However, you can use a few handy tricks. It may help you to reflect on the name for a while. If it’s not a common name, you can mention that: “Gosh, you don’t hear that name often… What does your name mean? Where does your name come from?” etc. If you pay enough attention to the name and discuss it, it will help you to remember it later, and the person you are talking to will certainly appreciate all the attention. Besides that, talking about names will offer you a suitable subject to talk about while you engage in, what for this kind of interaction is very important, small talk.

Make associations

Reflecting upon a name will help you to store that name into your long-term memory, but that alone is not enough. The information you have stored in your memory has to be available at the right moment, whenever you need it. To be able to recall things quickly, you have to connect or link the information in your brain. If you have to remember lots of names, you can think of associations that will help you to attach the right name to the right person. Make a mental note of what a person looks like, how he/ she is dressed and how he/she behaves. Then try to make a connection between that person’s characteristics and their name.

You can use the following methods:

The person resembles… (or does not…)

If someone introduces himself as Gerald, and coincidentally this happens to be the name of your father-in-law, you can look for ways this person resembles your father-in-law. Maybe they both wear glasses.  Possibly they both have grey hair. But it could also be they don’t resemble each other at all. In that case, the fact that you’ve been looking intently for any resemblance will have helped you to link the name Gerald, to this person. That way when you see his face in your mind, you can say to yourself: ‘I know this man is Gerald, and it’s easy to remember his name because he doesn’t look anything like my father-in-law – not even a little bit!’. This must work!

The person is accompanied by…

If somebody you already know brings an acquaintance, a friend or a colleague with him or her you can connect the names of these two people. To anchor this connection you have to sub-vocally rehearse the names: Peter and HermanPeter and Herman Peter and Herman. It is useful to speak the names out loud to someone else, in context. For example you could ask another visitor: “Have you met Peter and Herman before?” By doing this you tell your brain that these names are connected.  

This name resembles or rhymes with…

Be aware of the details of somebody’s appearance to form a link. A man with a red tie introduces himself as Brad. Now it’s easy for you to make an association between Brad and red.  You meet Paul in the hall. It’s not poetry, but it can be a clever mnemonic. If Richard is wearing an expensive watch, you can create a link with the word rich in his name.

Use your imagination

It doesn't stop here; you can apply this idea in increasingly creative ways! You can use your imagination to make associations between people and their names. If someone is called Arthur, then think about King Arthur.  Imagine this person in a suit of armour on horseback. Is his last name Baker,  then depict him mentally with a baker's hat and a flour powdered face next to a bread oven. The weirder the association is, the more easily you will be able to remember their name.

When I first read about these silly mechanisms for remembering names, it seemed rather puerile and simplistic to me, and I ignored these techniques when I encountered new people, until I met a colleague who managed to remember the names of twenty trainees, one by one, after having spoken with them for just a very brief period of time. He used these methods successfully. Later I found out for myself that it really works. Feel free to make the most absurd associations in your mind. Others won’t see or hear them, but it will help you enormously to memorise their names.

Use the name frequently

The effort you put in to learning names isn’t for nothing. It will motivate you to remember people’s names if you use them. Don’t just repeat people’s names when they introduce themselves, address them by their name regularly during any subsequent conversations too. If you meet someone for a second time, take the opportunity to approach him or her whilst saying their name out loud. And when you are leaving, use their name in parting: ‘See you again Margaret!’

A valuable skill

Knowing someone’s name and addressing them by their name is a valuable skill.  People will appreciate it and you will be considered friendly and approachable. The fact that you know somebody’s name and you use it, is seen as an expression of personal interest in the other person. In fact, people whose names you know immediately become less anonymous in your own eyes.

After you’ve developed the habit of repeating the names you’ve just heard, you will get a lot of surprised reactions and appreciation from other people. As I said earlier, most people don’t expect you to use their names straight away, because many of them believe that it’s almost impossible to memorise them, and they will consider it rather clever of you if you show them you can. Just speaking out people’s names will make you appear thoughtful, warm, kind, and intelligent.  People will like you more, because you’ve showed you are interested in them. The sooner you know people’s names to begin with, the sooner you will get acquainted with them and start to really get to know them.


About the author:

Frank van Marwijk is a sociotherapist and the director of Bodycom (Bodily Communication), a body language consultancy in the Netherlands. He is considered to be the best known Body Language specialist of the Netherlands. 

Frank is the creator of a Dutch website about body language: A partly translated version of which can be found at: