In PART 1 of this series on “How to Remember Things,” I introduced some core memory strategies, particularly applied to tricky spelling situations. If you have not already read that post (and even if you consider yourself an adequate speller), I recommend you take a moment to read it now, since it contains foundational strategies that will apply to all other memory techniques in the series.
In today’s post, I want to add a little more to your overall understanding of how memory works, and then apply it to one of the most useful skills you can have as a leader: how to remember names. This one will be a bit longer than other posts, because it contains a base of truly useful and necessary foundational information; but I promise, it will be worth your while. Not only will you gain real skills in just a few minutes here, remembering names is key to effective communication and rapport, as well as simply being others-focused in life.
How to Remember: Bottle Brain
By now, if you’ve been following along, you’ve gotten the drift that I’m a firm believer in active participation and experimentation. If you’re game, and you’re willing not to take yourself quite so seriously, then I’d like to provide an object lesson for you – one which will not only illustrate a facet of memory in a new way, but will likely stick with you forever. Grab a bottled drink of any size (plastic bottle). Drink about half of it and leave the cap off. Squeeze the bottle about halfway between the neck and base with your thumb and a finger, crunching it in on two sides. Make a fair dent, but don’t remove your fingers yet.
Now, when you do remove your fingers, do you think the bottle will remain dented? If so, for how long? Permanently?
OK, now release your fingers, being sure to note where you made the indent. Did your hypothesis turn out to be true?
Most likely, the bottle immediately returned to its original condition after you let go. This is a lot like how the left brain (or, more accurately, the left hemisphere of the brain) works. A primary use of the left brain is to store short-term information. It can only store words and rote facts. So when you try repeating someone’s name to yourself a few times, you are essentially “making a dent” in your left brain.
Let’s go back to that bottle. Pinch the bottle deeply again in the same place as last time and let go. What happened? Do it 10 more times. What do you notice happening each time? Is the result exactly the same, or does something change?
If you’ve been following along, you will notice that each time you squeeze-dent the bottle and then let go, the dent stays a tiny bit longer before the *pop* that returns it to its original condition. Eventually, if you were to keep squeeze-denting the bottle in the same place, the bottle would retain the dent more or less indefinitely.
This is also a great illustration of how the left brain works. If we repeat information over and over (and over, ad nauseam) in exactly the same way, it eventually “sticks.” This would be comparable to those dreaded math fact flash cards from grade school: “… six times two is twelve, six times three is eighteen, six times four is twenty-four …” Unfortunately, this is also how most teachers instruct students to memorize information: “Study your flash cards, your lists, your fact sheets, your class notes.” Drill, drill, drill … and then hope for the best.
What happens in this process, however, is that we “dent” the left brain just enough times to trick us into thinking it will stick. Like the bottle dent around attempt ten, that dent will stay for a little while. But then, when least expected … *pop* … it’s gone. You know you’ve been there! You prepared. You studied all night. But just after the test (or, more likely, during it), everything you were sure you knew went *pop* … and was gone.
To review, the left brain is designed for tasks that should be short-term tasks (e.g., remembering a phone number long enough to enter into our contact list), or tasks which, through immense repetition, will be committed to long-term memory (e.g., your own name, which you’ve heard from birth; multiplication facts).
The left brain is fairly inflexibly. In order to make a “dent,” information must be presented consistently over a long period of time – and in exactly the same way. For instance, try another experiment with me. Do you think you know the alphabet? Prove it. Say it now. Did you find yourself reciting “H I J K” paced slowly, followed by “L-M-N-O-P” said twice as fast? That is because you likely learned the alphabet using the alphabet song, which phrases the alphabet that way. Weird, right? But now, recite the alphabet backward, from Z to A. Go …
Could you? If you could, it was painstaking (unless you, like me, left-brain memorized the backward version separately). You know the alphabet, but only one way, in order, and with a specific cadence.
Again, the left-brain is very specific in its repetition. Do it exactly the same way or … *pop*!
How does all of this relate, when considering how to remember names (or anything else)? Well, we make the mistake of trying to use left-brain function for immediate, one-time tasks we want to remember for the long term. And it just isn’t designed to do that.
For that kind of memory to work, we need to turn to the right brain.
How to Remember: Beating Bottle Brain
The right brain cannot remember words or facts at all. It only retains non-verbal information taken in through the five senses – sight, sound (non-verbal sound including music, rhythm, etc.), touch, taste, smell – as well as mood, connotation, humor, movement, etc. Slapstick comedy and dance are just two examples of right-brain activities. Words are not required in order for them to work.
The beauty of the right brain is that it does not require repetition in order to remember its information long-term. For instance, what is the last new movie you saw? Think of a specific movie now. OK, ready? Quote back any 30 seconds of dialog from the movie. Can you? Unless you are very Spock-like, you can’t. You may not even recall the characters’ names. But I’ll bet you very well can explain the plot to me in great detail. This is because the “plot” consisted of visuals, emotional connections, sound effects, dramatic or humorous situations, etc. Your right brain remembers this stuff … well, forever, in most cases. And that’s after only one exposure. But the words of the movie are lost; your brain did not need them past the short-term memory needed to get through the length of the movie, and you didn’t sit and intentionally watch the movie hundreds of times in order to sufficiently “dent” your left-brain memory.
I hope you’re getting excited here about where I’m going with this. You have an excellent memory already. You already know how to remember everything you might ever want to recall. You’ve just been trying to force the wrong part of your brain to do something it isn’t designed to do.
The even better part of approaching tasks with right-brain thinking is that your brain is, in fact, a whole unit. Every word on the left side is attached to multiple pieces of non-verbal information on the right. When you read the words “rocking chair,” your left brain immediately sends impulses and the right brain fills in the gap with tons of useful information: perhaps a mental image of a natural or white classic style wooden rocker, in motion, making a creaking sound. You likely even see the emotional connotation of additional information, like a grandmother or new young mother rocking in it.
Likewise, when you see an image (like remembering the movie plot), your right brain grabs for words to describe it out of the left brain (which allows you to tell people about what you saw).
The trick, then, is to learn to immediately use the right brain rather than left brain in order to store new information.
With that in mind, let’s finally talk about how to remember those names.
How to Remember: The Name Game
So you’re networking. Or you’re presenting at a conference, or running a workshop. You want to interact with people, but that requires remembering their names. Name tags are great, but they aren’t always in play. And what if someone isn’t choosing to wear hers, or has removed a jacket on which the name tag was stuck? Knowing how to remember names is a skill that will serve you well in countless ways.
By now, you’ve figured out what not to do; don’t just try repeating the name to yourself in your head. It won’t work. Your mind will trick you. It will make just enough of a “dent” to give you the confidence to think you’ve got it down; but as soon as something else takes your attention (and thus resets your short-term memory cache) … *pop*.
What we want to do is to turn this person’s name and a key characteristic into a right-brain impression, completely free of words. I know this is all new. Stick with me a bit longer.
Imagine you’re meeting the following four strangers:
Let’s assign them random names (left to right): Jess, Ryan, Heather and Jack.
Effective communication – including superior memory – requires intention and attention. Focus on these people. What do you notice about each one that ties in with the sound of their name? This will most likely be a AUDITORY-VISUAL cue. That is, I want to home in on something visual about each of them that sounds like their name.Effective communication – including superior memory – requires intention and attention. Click To Tweet
If you don’t need to remember these people’s names after today, you can use anything as the visual cue, including hairstyle, clothing, etc., since those things will remain the same today.
If you need to remember these people’s names past right now, you’ll want to avoid changeable things like hair or clothing and focus on more intrinsic attributes.
One of the easiest things, if applicable, is to associate something about them with someone you already know well. Does this new Jess talk with a nasal voice tone like your best friend, Jess? Did you have a conversation with Jack where he told you he was in the same branch of the military as your cousin Jack? Those are easy peasy non-verbal connections to make right-brain impact quickly.
But let’s assume none of these people remind you of anyone else by these names in significant ways. And let’s assume you need to remember them past today. Here’s how I’d approach it (but your ideas can literally be anything that works for you):
Jess – I notice that this new Jess laughs a lot. That’s a non-verbal thing about her. And I think her name sounds like “jest.” So I’m going to imagine her right now wearing a red and black oversized “jester” hat the entire time she’s talking to me (to match her red shirt and black vest). Every time she laughs, I’m imagining the bells on the end of the three points of the hat jingling. I might as well add a secondary cue of imagining her red and black harlequin jester hat looks like a “chess” board (which also sounds like “Jess”).
Ryan – Ryan has curly brown hair. I’m going to picture that he has pieces of marble RYE bread in his hair. I see the brown and cream colored swirls in the bread. The whole time I’m talking with Ryan, and whenever I look at him afterward, I’m going to imagine that he is picking pieces of that RYE out of his hair and eating them like a chipmunk. He’s Ryan who has “rye in” his hair.
Heather – Heather smiles a lot. I’m going to imagine her with a necklace made of feathers. The feathers (which sounds like “Heather”) are lightly moving in the air and tickling her. That is why she is smiling so much. For now, I’m also going to imagine, as an extra, that the feathers are white, since her shirt is white. They are seagull feathers, with dark tips. (This extra hint is just that: something I added to help me in the short-term, but that should stick next time I see her and she isn’t wearing white.) When I see that smile, I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah, she smiles like that because of her FEATHER necklace. This is HEATHER.”
Jack – Jack is unusually tall and thin. I’m imagining that he is a GIANT, like from Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m going to push this image further by imaging vines crawling up his “beanpole-like” body. The whole time I’m talking to Jack, I’m going to imagine a tiny person trying to climb up those vines – maybe around his tie area – and that this tiny “Jack” keeps slipping down into the real Jack’s pocket and needing to start his climb over.
In each case, I’ve tied in something visual (even if imaginary!) to the sound of the person’s name. What’s more, I didn’t tie anything to an abstract idea, but rather to a concrete visual image. That’s crucial. Remember, a clear mental image is stored by the right brain in exactly the same way a real image is (which is why strong readers remember plots of books they read decades ago). So those imaginary components are keys in how to remember information using the right brain.
Well, great, but what if the first person’s name was Rachael instead of Jess? Doesn’t matter. Just change the non-verbal connection. For me, she has a lot of characteristics of the early “Racheal” from the television show Glee. So I could use that. Or I could imagine that whenever she laughs an ice “ray” comes beaming out of her mouth and gives me the “chills.” I see a white, frosty light emanating from her and I see myself shivering with icicles on my nose. “Ray chill” reminds me that she is “Rachael.”
Believe it or not, this is how “the big boys” really do it! And now, you can, too.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts with more tips on how to remember … well, everything! In future posts, we’ll tackle brain boosters for how to remember other things essential to effective communication, from new vocabulary to presentation points; but the basic strategies will be the same ones you’ve already applied in this post and the last. Still have questions? Feel free to ask in the Comments section below. I’m happy to help!