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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

A Rose, by any other name, does NOT smell as sweet....

My mother is 88 years old and is still as sharp as a razor. She was recently asked to take over as Corporate Secretary for a voluntary group that she’s been involved in. But after a few months she was complaining that she wasn’t enjoying it. This is not like her. She could do this sort of work like falling off a log, so I asked what was going on. It came down to this: the Chairman kept getting her name wrong, calling her ‘Holly’ rather than ‘Rose’. At first she corrected him, but he persisted in getting it wrong. She tried to ignore it. Then (to see how he liked it) she started addressing her Chairman by a name that wasn’t his – still no reaction. Eventually she resigned from the post and they lost a good Corporate Secretary. Contrary to what Romeo says of Juliet: "A Rose by any other name...." does NOT smell as sweet". Getting someone’s name wrong is a bad mistake, even once.

On the other hand, getting someone’s name right when you've only met them briefly gives that person a real boost. Politicians are famed for this skill. And remembering people’s names in context is highly valued. My brother has met Tony Blair precisely twice. Both times it was with plenty of other people in the room. On the second occasion Blair immediately referred to my brother by name, and recounted snippets of their (only) previous conversation. Now, Big Tony no doubt has flunkies with a clipboard following him around who can remind him who he’s talking to, but from that moment on my brother was a fan. He’s told the story to dozens of people, and even though he doesn’t support Blair’s politics – he is prepared to cut him considerable slack.

Remembering the names of parties in mediation, and (more importantly) not getting their names wrong, is a vital skill.

Now, I have a poor short-term memory. I am forever wandering around the house looking for my phone. I frequently call my wife by my daughter’s name – and I often address my youngest son as “Mike” – who is our terrier dog. So, I started to look for ways to improve my name-memory skills. After some reading around, I found the following tips extremely useful.

Give yourself a goal

Before you go to a big event where you don’t know many people - visualise yourself getting a suitcase full of crisp £20 notes as a prize for remembering the name of the next person you meet. I am telling you now - you will remember that person’s name, even though the suitcase of money is unfortunately just a figment of your imagination.

The reason is that you gave your brain an advance reason for remembering that name.

Pay attention

When being introduced to someone for the first time, take the time to have a good look at who you are meeting. If you don’t focus on that person, right then, you have very little chance of making a connection with their name. Make a mental note of something about the person: what are they wearing, where do they work, who are they are married to? It’s also good to focus on something distinctive about their face, or features such as their hair, so that you can associate their face with the thing you know about them. So, the guy in the corner becomes - “Peter's the guy with the wart, who was as the same school as my sister”.

In most cases where you don’t recall a name it’s not that you have a bad memory, it’s simply that you weren’t concentrating. Another simple way to force this is to say silently in your head “what’s their name?”

I used to work for a Japanese company, where business cards were often exchanged at a first meeting. To try to remember the card-giver I would usually write something about them on the reverse of their business card. [Note: in Asian culture the exchange of business cards is a big deal. So don't write on a business card in sight of the person who gave it to you. They might be insulted.]

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat

Another common way to trick your brain into remembering someone’s name is to repeat it out loud when you first meet. Your brain has a funny way of prioritising what comes out of your mouth over stuff that comes out of other peoples’ mouths. And the trick is even more powerful when accompanied by taking some time, and some positive action, like shaking their hand and saying something, such as - “Good Morning. Good to meet you, Hesperides”.

If someone has an odd-sounding, or difficult to pronounce, name then ask them to repeat it. And then repeat it out loud yourself. “So, that’s ‘SER-sha, right’?” Most people with odd-sounding names are used to this little dance and aren’t in the least bit embarrassed by it – at least not the first time you meet.

You can further reinforce a person’s name by linking them with someone you already know - “That’s a lovely name, my son is also named Augustus.”

Focus on the person and not on what you want to say

Often we don’t remember people’s names when we first meet, or much else about them, because our brains are full of questions that we want to ask them. Again, having a head full of questions takes away from our ability to focus and concentrate on the person we are in front of, and their name.

Create a visual name-image in your head

If you are introduced to Martin Cheesewright you can remember his name by visualising a piece of cheese and turning ‘wright’ into ‘white’ (as in a ‘Martin white cheese’). The more precise you can be with your mental image the more likely you will remember the person behind the image. So, including a house martin bird in your mental image, pecking at some white cheese, might work well for Martin Cheesewright.

In the same way you can use visual cues to create a link. So a breaded man called Eric is best remembered by thinking: “BEARD” and from that, “EAR-IC”. A man called Douglas who wears glasses can be remembered by visualising him in his glasses and calling him “Dou_Glass” in your mind.

This last method is borrowed from the Ecologically Oriented Neurorehabilitation of Memory program, which is used to help patients with neurological conditions improve their memory.

Another similar trick favoured by Ron White, a US ‘competitive memory champion’, is to associate a person’s name with an image, and then associate their face with the image. So, for instance:

· Ron, sounds like ‘Run”. So he becomes a jogger running along the road;

· Michelle, sounds like ‘Missile’. So she is atop a missile being fired into the sky;

· Steve, becomes a stove - with Steve’s face in the glass door;

· Lisa, becomes Mona Lisa, with her face superimposed on the famous old master’;

· Karen, becomes the head of a big carrot;

· Brian, is the guy with the huge brain coming out of his head;

· Matt, is a friendly face on a welcome mat; and so on.

Concentrate when you say goodbye

Use a new person’s name when you say goodbye, and if you can’t remember it, ask again!

Total recall

Try remembering the names of those you have met soon after you have met for the first time. When I am in a meeting with new people I like to draw a little plan of the table we are at and write the names of the people in the room, and where they are sitting in relation to me. Then – if there are people I can’t identify – I will approach them in a break and get their name again. People won’t be offended if you just met, because lots of people struggle with this. Try it! It really works.

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