You see a woman's face and you're sure you know her from somewhere. You feel your neurons fire in slow motion. Did you work with her? Was she in a class with you?
Did she date one of your friends? You just can't place her. While you're faking familiarity through hellos and handshakes, you notice her puzzled expression; she's struggling to place you, too. Both of you wish you knew how to remember names and faces.
How to Remember Names and Faces like a Pro
You suspect it's possible to remember names and faces. You've seen a book on Amazon, a YouTube video, or even a late-night infomercial by that “world memory champion” who can recall the order of cards in a shuffled deck.
And we all know that one coworker whose brain seems to be a name/face database. Could they show you how to remember names and faces? We spent time with memory experts to see if we could pick up their techniques.
You Already Remember Faces
Humans (this includes you) are exceptional at visual recall. We remember faces. We can recall faces that have changed with different hair or makeup, weight gain/loss, and even age if we haven't seen the person in years.
The memory we struggle with is abstract memory, like names. This is why the phenomenon of seeing and being unable to place a face is significantly more common than the inverse. You seldom hear a name and struggle to put it to a face.
That Guy… Who Was in That Thing
This phenomenon of face-but-not-name recall is on full display in the 2012 documentary "That Guy… Who Was in that Thing". It features different character actors you will recognize because each has appeared in secondary roles in numerous major films and television shows.
Because they are not the stars, but you've seen them many times, you will definitely remember their faces. But rarely will you be able to name them or their characters. You may even struggle to recall the other abstract (besides the actor's name): exactly what shows you saw them in. But the faces remain.
With Faces, You're Halfway There
By realizing that you are already built to be good a face recaller, you eliminate half the problem of learning how to remember names and faces. Now to focus on pinning names to those faces.
That's where our experts' memory techniques require a little learning effort. It's that first behavior modification that teaches you how to remember names and faces like a pro.
Meeting Moment Mindfulness
Return for a moment to the woman whose face looked so familiar. Even while you were desperately trying to recall how you knew her, you managed a solid hello and handshake. Our greeting process is automatic (for most of us, at least). We can breeze through “Hi, it's so great to meet you!” while our mind is somewhere else.
Hear That? You Missed Her Name!
You were right there when she told you her name. You were on autopilot. Don't beat yourself up too much. This is human nature. It's to learn from our mistakes. This is the first item our face/name memory experts say must change in learning how to remember names and faces. We must focus on introductions.
The Face-Name Checklist
Below is a list of three things you should remember to do in order to easier remember somebody's name:
As you meet a person, your only focus should be to hear their name. You already know how to shake hands, smile, and introduce yourself. If you fail on every other part of this checklist, hearing their name makes it a success.
Find a Charming Way to Repeat Their Name Back to Them
First, we all love someone who says our name out loud. It means they were listening, which is a one-up on virtually everyone else we've met. Second, repetition enforces your focus and recall of their name.
By charming, we do not mean clever or humorous. In fact, avoid making cliché jokes. Casey has already heard the one about being “at the bat”. Monica already knows about the character on “Friends”. Everyone has already heard their name associations.
Repeating their name can be as simple as pretending you were making sure you heard it right or asking if it is a unique spelling. As with all new skills, practice will improve your abilities.
Use the Method of Loci
We delve into the method of connecting a name to a facial feature via Socrates' “Method of Loci” below:
Remember Socrates: “The Method of Loci”
We can borrow a memory technique from someone you know more by name than by face, and that is the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He was so into memory that he protested writing anything down because he believed that diminished a person's ability to remember. Socrates is the great ancient godfather of how to remember names and faces.
Socrates Memorized Long Speeches
When a student asked Socrates how he memorized his long but highly-organized speeches, Socrates said he mentally wandered Athens (his hometown). While writing a speech, he mentally anchored key topics at key landmarks along a familiar path.
He placed topic number one next to a well-known statue, topic two on the steps of a temple, and topic three in an olive tree garden. As he spoke, Socrates mentally wandered his path and picked up topics where he left them.
From Socrates to Moonwalking with Einstein
Socrates' technique is called the “Method of Loci” (“Method of Places” in English). It is such a staple of the memory-expert canon that variations appear throughout history, including in contemporary books like Joshua Foer's 2011 "Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything".
Mr. Foer is one of those memory experts (literally a competitive “US Memory Champion”) who can recall the order of all the cards in a shuffled deck. His explanation of constructing and using your own version of the Method of Loci warrants book-length immersion; you can't do it justice in a 1500-word article.
Two Eyes, Two Ears, One Nose, One Mouth
The face itself is your town. Since all faces have the same basic features and most faces have at least one standout feature (large nose, tiny ears, and overly-micro bladed eyebrows), you associate a person's name with a prominent feature: Judge Thomas' nose is sharp like a Tomahawk. Tara has huge teeth. Cara's complexion could use care.
It takes practice but using this technique to help you focus on the person's name and associate that name with a notable facial feature significantly increases your chances of a recall.
Write Their Name down ASAP
Writing the person's name down is as much a disciplined practice as maintaining your focus on hearing their name when you first meet someone. This takes effort and you get better with time.
Much like the practice of (charmingly) repeating a person's name back to them, writing it down helps with memory reinforcement. You now have two name associations, audible and written - three if you also made a “Method of Loci” facial feature association.
Writing the name down also creates a permanent record you can refer back to when you cannot recall the person's name later.
Write Names in Order
If you're in a meeting with a notepad (or even a scrap of paper) in front of you, write the names down. In fact, several of our experts said always do this with the names in the same order as the people are around the table or room.
Unfortunately, we aren't always in a situation where it's appropriate to have a notepad. It might be a more personal/intimate setting or a large gathering where a notepad might make you look like part of the staff.
Fortunately, modern society allows us to peek at our smartphones in most social situations (even if it's on the way to the restroom). After you meet someone and lock in their name with the three-step checklist, take the next available opportunity to put their name into your smartphone's notes app.
Internet Stalker Tip
One of our experts takes the “write the name down” shortcut to an extreme. She's in sales and considers every contact to be a prospect or a referral, even if they aren't in the market right at that moment. Remembering people is her livelihood.
She starts each day by going through her smartphone's notes app and transferring names from the previous day to her contacts list. This includes finding the person on Facebook or LinkedIn so that she has their name, a note about when/how they met, contact information, and a picture to review.
She never contacts them online unless that seems appropriate. However, the exercise further reinforces her ability to recall the person when they meet again. She can also find them quickly in her contacts list if needed.
Conclusion: A Final Note and Your Memory Zen
As with anything worthwhile in life, learning how to remember names and faces requires effort. However, with discipline and practice, the rewards are exceptional. They can include career advancement, a larger social circle, and a broadened dating pool.
Featured Image via Pxhere