Think of a time when someone you had met only once before greeted you the next time by name. Now compare that experience with how you feel when a colleague you have spoken with frequently never uses your name in your conversations.

Remember People's Names

We feel more valued and respected when someone remembers our name. We feel more engaged in a conversation when someone uses our name. “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language,” writes Dale Carnegie in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

When you use someone’s name, it shows you see that person as an individual. When you remember it, it shows your interest in and respect for that individual. In business, knowing someone’s name can make a difference in how that person feels about you and your brand. The trouble is most of us have trouble remembering the names of people we don’t know well, and we panic. Sometimes we may even avoid someone whose name we don’t remember in order to to avoid embarrassment.

We even make excuses like, ”I’m terrible at names.”  Or “I have bad memory.” People who are good at remembering names probably don’t have any better memory than you do. What they are better at is working at remembering names. You can too. Here are five steps to remembering people’s names:

Steps to remember people’s names

1. Focus on the other person.

To remember a name, it helps to learn a bit about the person. When you meet a new business acquaintance, make eye contact and offer your hand. If you didn’t hear the person’s name or it wasn’t said, ask for it.  Then use it immediately. “Hello, Jake. It is nice to meet you.” Smile at the other person and give him your full attention.

2 Ask a question.

If the other person’s name is difficult to pronounce, this is a time to ask if you are pronouncing it correctly. As many of us are working globally today, we will be hearing more and more unfamiliar names. You want the other person to know that you care enough to get it right. If appropriate, ask for that person’s business card so that you can see how it is spelled as well.

Next ask an open question such as “Jake, how did you get started with A2Z Inc.? The idea of an open question is also for you to learn a little bit about the person so that you will have some solid associations with the name. It also lets the other person know that you are interested in him and want to know more about him. Sometimes when we meet someone new, we have an urge to do all the talking. Listen more and make mental notes of what the person is saying while saying his name silently to yourself.

3. Create an image or association of the person with the name.

Different tricks work for different people. What is important is that you link the name in your mind to something familiar to you. If the name is the same as someone else you know, you could make a mental image of the two Jakes standing side by side. It could be alliterative like “Jake-Jaguar” or if Jake’s last name is Butler, you could think of Jake wearing a traditional butler’s suit of clothes. Remember, no one needs to know about these images but you; they are simply tools to trick your mind into remembering the name.

4. End the conversation by using his or her name again.

As your conversation ends, use the name one more time in closing. “I am glad to have met you, Jake. I hope to see you again next week.” As the person departs, say the name again silently to yourself.

5. Keep a name file.

As soon as it is practical, write the name down the name with a line or two about the person. Be careful with distinguishing characteristics like “short hair” or “mustache” because those could be different on a next meeting. Try to jot down attributes that are not likely to waver such as: “Jake Butler. A2Z, Inc. 2 years. Marketing and Development. Texas accent.”

Some people find it helpful to have a small notebook with them at business-related functions for this purpose. Obviously if you are meeting a lot of people at the same meeting, you can’t stop after each introduction and make notes, so you may need to wait until after the meeting.  Another option is if the person hands you a business card, you can jot a note or two on the back of the card.

Along with these five “do’s”, there are some “don’ts” to remember about learning names in a business setting:

  • Don’t comment about someone’s unusual name. Chances are he or she has heard this plenty of times since grade school days and does not need to hear it from you. Also remember that in an increasingly global business world, what is unusual to you may be quite common in another culture. You may come off sounding ignorant or xenophobic.
  • Don’t assign the person a nickname. Use the name that someone gives you upon meeting because that is what he or she wants to be called. If someone introduces herself as Deborah, don’t say “Nice to meet you, Debbie” for example.
  • Don’t over-use the other person’s name in an attempt to learn it. Example: “Jake, I wanted to ask you, Jake, how long you have worked for A2Z, Inc. How about it, Jake?” You will just sound a bit crazy.
  • Don’t sweat it if you can’t remember a name. It is awkward, but it happens to the best of us. Say something like, “I am so sorry, I know we have met, but I seem to have forgotten your name.” Then follow the first five steps above so that it doesn’t happen again.
  • Don’t guess at the spelling of someone’s name. Do your homework to get it right. I have had people misspell my name in e-mails when it is right there in my e-mail address. Second to hearing our name pronounced correctly in person, is seeing it spelled and used correctly in written communication.

Learning and using people’s names correctly is a skill you can master. Just like any other skill, it takes some time, some patience and a little effort. The results you get in deeper relationships with clients, colleagues and employees will be worth it.