By Dominic O’Brien – 8 Times World Memory Champion

You know the situation: you’re introduced to a small group of people and within a minute you realise their names just didn’t register. How embarrassing and awkward is that?

Of all the concerns that people share with me about their memory, putting names to faces is the most common. Yet research shows that humans have an inbuilt mechanism for recognizing faces. Probably a survival tool helping us to recognize our enemies from our friends. 

So, if remembering a face isn’t so much the difficulty then why is it that so many of us have a problem when it comes to remembering names themselves?

The short answer is that our names simply do not describe our faces. They don’t represent who we are or what we do, unless your name is Usain Bolt or even Bernard Madoff: remember him?

An aptronym or euonym is a name aptly and sometimes amusingly suited to the job, personality or some aspect of its owner. The five husbands bigamist, Emily Horne, comes to mind. Sara Blizzard is a BBC weather presenter.

Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.’ John F Kennedy 

There are a number of tricks you can employ which all use the three keys of memory: Association, Location and Imagination.

Performing a name

Taking the aptronym route, I get people to perform their name. 

For example, you are introduced to a Miss Carpenter. Imagine her crafting a piece of wood or singing an old Carpenters song ‘Close to you.’

For the name Vincent, imagine him painting in the style of Van Gogh.

If you think about it, we tend to remember incidents in our lives and the more unusual the event, the more memorable it is. This is known as episodic memory and for me this is the most powerful way to embed a person’s name. 

I’ll even ask someone to physically enact their name. I once met a couple, Sean and Jenny. I asked Jenny to pretend she was shaving her husband’s hair. I then got her to pull an imaginary cord as in starting a generator or ‘genny.’

If the name is Ashwell then I picture ashes being chucked down a well

It doesn’t matter how complicated the name, there’s always some element in a name you can use as an association to find an action.

Micklethwaite makes me think of the golfer Phil Mickelson who I would imagine weight-lifting.

Feature Link

When you meet someone for the first time you might find a link between a certain feature they have and their name, no matter how tenuous that link may be. For example, I meet a woman called Tina who isn’t very tall: tiny Tina. Or Bridgette who happens to have a very flat-bridged nose.

A word of warning though: it’s not always wise to reveal how you’ve remembered someone’s name unless the ideas behind them are flattering. In my profession, I’m often asked how I’ve remembered a person’s name and I confess that, occasionally, I’ve had to tell a white lie.

The Journey Method

At the world Memory championships, we competitors are given fifteen minutes to memorise over one hundred names and faces. I use a mental journeys to do this. Each journey or route consists of fifty stages which means I can memorise fifty names at a time.

It could be a journey around a golf course that I know well: first tee, fairway, green, and so on. At each stage or stop along the course I imagine seeing each person performing their name in some way. It takes a little practice and good deal of creativity but this method of coding names works a treat when it comes to memorizing a list of people.

Try it yourself. Once you’ve played around with this technique and are confident it works there’s nothing to stop you memorizing a room full of people. All it takes is a bit of imagination.

Dominic O’Brien
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