At a recent meeting in London to discuss the future of journalism, about 30 participants sat at a horseshoe of tables, briefly introduced themselves, and exchanged thoughts for 90 minutes. Then the chair, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, provided a summary of the discussion.
As he did so, he name-checked each person who had made a salient point, gesturing towards them. It was a subtle, but incredibly effective strategy, giving my colleague and I, who were in attendance, the impression that Nielsen was a pretty smart guy.
Using people’s names is an extremely well-known management technique. Savvy CEOs know that one way to make employees feel valued is to master the art of listening to their names, and then using them in the ensuing conversations. But remembering every name in a large meeting has an added power: It not only gives those whose names are remembered a little glow; it also makes the person remembering them impressive. Not only have they attended to the content of the meeting, they’ve also managed to absorb individual information.
Don’t think you could remember three names—let alone 30—after hearing them once? There are some simple ways to try.
Nielsen takes a practical approach, jotting down names and ideas in a notebook to create a meeting cheat sheet. “I sketch a map of the seating arrangement with dots for each person and try to jot down their first name and one thing they said about themselves,” he said in an email. Noting down names, then subtly checking them before using them, is one way to gain most of the effect of intelligence without using up all your powers of concentration on memory exercises.
Having said that, the best way to actually remember names is to concentrate the first time you hear them. Most of the difficulty we experience remembering is an attention problem, not a memory problem. The start of a meeting is a distracting environment of finding seats, opening laptops, and hanging up jackets. If you can make sure to direct your attention to the names in that moment, you have the advantage over most people in the room.
Actors play a voice and memory game that makes memorizing names surprisingly easy. Standing in a circle, the first actor introduces themselves: “I’m Sam.” The actor next to them introduces the first actor, then themselves. “This is Sam, and I’m Sadie.” The third does the same: “This is Sam, this is Sadie, and I’m Frank.” The technique allows the final person in the circle to repeat every name, with order and repetition reinforcing the list each time it’s spoken. In a meeting, a silent version of this is possible: saying the person’s name in one’s head when they make a point, and creating a litany of all the names when you look around the room.
If you want to bring actual memory techniques to bear, the advice would suggest creating an association between the name and a mental image that you connect with that person. When struggling to learn the name of a friend’s partner called Mike, for example, I associated the colorful shoes he was wearing with a singer at a microphone, an image which now comes to mind every time I think of him. While this technique works very well when meeting one new person, it does take mental energy and a few moments of time that might not be available in an important meeting—hence the advice to make notes.
Nielsen’s improvised technique for more informal situations is even simpler. “I always try to repeat people’s name when I introduce myself to them, and try to remember one thing they remind me of, just to help ‘fasten’ their name to something I already remember,” he wrote.
Remembering names, for most people, takes at least some effort: Nielsen describes himself as “generally poor” at it, but says he thinks it’s respectful to try. Luckily, though, when put into practice in the right situation, it suggests a quality of attention and intelligence that’s memorable.