Here’s the scenario: You are the CEO of a large organisation. You get called into a meeting where there are several employees and stakeholders present that you haven’t yet met. One by one they reach out to shake your hand and tell you their name. You sit down and prepare yourself for the meeting. However there is just one thing – you’ve forgotten the names of the people you just shook hands with. What a bummer!

Forgetting names can be a serious matter. The impact in business can be as severe as losing business relationships, staff disengagement, and people left not feeling important.

There are CEOs out there that seem to remember the names of everyone. These skillful human beings know the importance of such strategy as it builds rapport, human engagement and makes people feel important. However, not all CEOs and executives have a knack for remembering names. It is the reason why CEOs that come to me for memory coaching want to be able to remember names so they can build sustainable relationships. Remembering names can be a very difficult thing to master and not many people in general are good at it. Even the top memory champions in the world still find it difficult.

So why is remembering a name so difficult? The answer lies in how our brains work.

The left side of the brain deals with such things as logic, words, numbers, structure, lists. These things are in fact difficult to remember as they are ‘abstract’, meaning they don’t make much sense. Numbers are difficult to remember as they don’t essentially have a meaning. For example, if you tried to memorise the number 8254390256392625, it would just look like a jumble and not mean anything. Even a list of words can be difficult as they are abstract to the point until they have a meaning. It is why people often forget shopping and to-do lists as the information is abstract and not stored in the brain as it should be.

How to remember names

Trying to remember a name is exactly the same. Just like a number or a word, it is also abstract. It provides no visual representation to us. So when people try and remember a name, it is usually trying to repeat an abstract piece of information in their head, expecting to recall them perfectly. In some instances yes recall may be achieved. But it is not an effective way for remembering names.

The right side of the brain has imagination, colour, rhythm, sound, vision and the like. In order to remember a name perfectly, we need to be able to use both sides of our brain. That is, connect the abstract with the visual/imaginative. Let me give you an example:

Years ago I used to work with a colleague by the name of Vijayarangan Ramachandran. He was a lovely young man, however his name was too difficult for me to remember. The name didn’t mean anything to me. It was too abstract. In order to remember his name I had to convert the abstract name into an image. So I played around with the name and broke it up like so: Vijay | arangan | Ram a | chandran.

For ‘Vijay’ I visualised my colleague as a DJ (Disc Jockey) pumping out tunes at a nightclub. A picture of an Oran-gutan for ‘arangan’ came into my head. ‘Ram a’ reminded me of ramming a shopping trolley for some particular reason. So I imagined ‘ramming a’ shopping trolley. ‘Chandran’ sounded like “Chained” and  “Ran”.

I had now created images for Vijayarangan Ramachandran. However decoding the abstract words into images wasn’t enough. I had to remember the name in its order. This is where I had to create a story to associate one name to the other. Doing this helped me remember the order of the name. The story was, a DJ playing music at a nightclub when all of a sudden an Orang-utan jumped on top of the turntable. The music stopped and everyone froze and turned their heads towards the DJ booth. One of the dancers turned around and was ‘ramming a’ shopping trolley into the DJ booth. Someone then came and ‘chained’ the trolley to the DJ booth and then ‘ran’ off.

To memorize the name I went through 2 steps;

  1. Abstract to image conversion. Transform the meaningless to an image.
  2. Image to association. Order images together into a story.

Adding to this you can also rhyme the names. E.g. Mike on a bike. Rodger the dodger. Tansel Tinsel. Imagine a person you know. If you meet a Ronald, maybe picture Ronald McDonald. There is much fun to be had trying to remember a name. The more you play around the easier it gets.

These elements are part of The Yellow Elephant Memory Model which help people understand how to use their brains to remember and learn anything. For example, present confidently without any notes and learn languages quickly. More detail about the Yellow Elephant Memory Model can be found in my book – The Yellow Elephant.

So the next time you want to remember a name, ask yourself how you can make an image from it and then convert that into a story. The results will surprise you!

Oh and the name of my colleague was?

(Originally published in The CEO Magazine March 2014 edition)

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