The exact steps I learnt and follow to help me stop being "terrible at names", and how I use one simple trick to influence any business meeting in my favour.
Human beings love hearing our own names. It’s the sweetest music any of us could ever hear.
You’ll know the feeling if you’re sitting in a crowded room and someone calls you out by name. Nothing catches your attention quite as quickly.
This short post is about using that very fact to your advantage in any business meeting (or conversation, really). It’ll help you take control of a room, and influence the people in it to align on your ideas.
This advice comes after a remarkable experience I had in a board room (more below) that opened my eyes to the power of using someone’s name.
This is a tutorial on how to become a names person, and get people on your side. Here’s how we’re going to tackle it:
Straight into it then!
Consider these findings from Carmody and Lewis in their study titled “Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own Name versus the Name of Others”:
There are several regions in the left hemisphere that show greater activation to one’s own name, including middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus. These findings provide evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others.
In plain English: our brain comes alive when we hear our own name being spoken. So that little fuzzy feeling you get when you’re called out? It happens to everyone.
This hypothesis is corroborated in other studies, including those of patients suffering from a persistent vegetative state (PVS). PVS is used to describe someone who has zero control of the state of their body. They cannot move or communicate in any way and have a complete lack of awareness of both themselves and their body.
Upon hearing their names spoken, PVS patients showed signs of brain activation. If someone who is mostly brain dead responds (even subconsciously) to the sound of their own name, imagine the effect that has on someone who is a complete stranger, and doesn’t expect you for a second to remember their name.
It’s an extremely powerful tool you can use to your advantage.
This article was spawned from an experience I had in a role as a junior business development manager.
I went into a meeting with two of our company partners, essentially as a pilot fish. I was there to listen and learn, and click next on the Powerpoint presentation. Our two co-founders were pitching to a room of about 12 possible clients from a big telco firm that we wanted to setup a partnership with. It would be a huge win for our little business if they could pull it off.
The meeting started the normal way; everyone went around the table and introduced themselves, saying what they did and how they fitted into the picture. I squeaked out my name as fast as possible and looked to the person next to me to please go before someone asked me something.
Our founders, Ed and Greg started the presentation and it all went pretty well. When they got to the end, it was time for a Q&A session. We had a good product, and the value we could potentially create for this company was significant. Because of that, there were a lot of questions from all sides of the table.
To my absolute amazement, Ed answered each person by name when they asked a question. On the first go, I thought it was a fluke — maybe he knew the person prior to us coming into the room. I then watched it all unfold as he responded to each person, making a point to use their name every single time.
I was clearly not the only one who was impressed. At the end of the session, one of the woman across the table from me said to him, “Ed, I almost forgot your name when you introduced yourself and there are only 2 of you. How on earth did you remember everyone’s names here? That was remarkable!”
It had a profound effect on the meeting. Everyone was interested, got their questions answered and were engaged in the conversation. We won the contract.
That short experience helped me realize the importance of names. It helped me make the decision to lose the title of “being terrible with names”.
So I set finding out exactly how best to do that.
The number one reason people forget what other people’s names are is because they’re so focused on themselves.
If you’ve ever stumbled your way through an introductory sentence and said something stupid, it’s probably a sign that you’re too focused on yourself.
Your ego is getting in the way.
Remember: No one actually cares about you. They’re too focused on themselves, too. Forget about yourself and what you’re doing. If you’re focusing on them, your subconscious will take over and the greeting part will come naturally to you.
Bad memory is often mistaken for not paying attention. If you can remember experiences and stories from your childhood, there’s nothing wrong with your memory. You’ve just got an attention problem.
The intention here is to develop a cue so that you snap yourself out of whatever hole your mind is in, and focus your attention on the task at hand: Names.
My trigger is a bangle on my right hand. Whenever I stuck my hand out to shake someone’s hand, I’d notice/feel my bangle and that would be my cue.
If it’s a situation where you’re not shaking hands, it became second nature to reach up my sleeve and play with my bangle.
It was my cue to do one thing: Focus. Focus on listening. That was all.
Also, not listening to respond, listening to understand and hear. If you’re properly focused, you can tell a lot about someone in your first interaction with them.
The first actual action you have to take is to use that person’s name immediately.
Lise Abrams and Danielle Davis cite the fact that names are not used repeatedly as one of the top four reasons we forget people’s names easily. Because they’re not part of our every day language, they’re easy to forget. This is the basis for this step. By saying someone’s name straight away, there is instant reinforcement.
Usually this comes in the form of: “Hi Mark, I’m Simon — it’s great to meet you”, or if you’ve already introduced yourself: “It’s great to meet you, Mark”.
And then in any subsequent conversation, make sure you’re using their name. It may sound unnatural to you, but it never does to the person hearing it (see section 1). Most importantly, make sure you say goodbye to them by name, and focus while you’re doing it.
As soon as you hear a person’s name, you’ll associate it with something. There will be something unique about that person’s name that immediately springs to mind. If, on the extremely rare occasion, that doesn’t happen — then assign them something memorable.
I quickly went to listofrandomnames.com (I couldn’t believe there was a site just for this either) and generated these 5 names as an example:
I bet if you closed your eyes now, you would be able to recite at least two or three of those names — and you don’t even know what they look like. It’s also very seldom that you’ll have to remember second names.
Another trick I’ve used which helps with long term recall is identifying something on the persons face and then exaggerating it. You pick out a remarkable feature of theirs (big blue eyes, for example) and then exaggerate it in your mind. You paint them as a caricature in your mind.
Use this, along with the technique below.
If you’re in a room full of people — like a board room — it’s helpful to build a story using the characters you’ve created in the step above. That way, if by chance you forget one person’s character (name) you can just look for the gap in the story you created, and suddenly Joan of Ark in the stars comes back to you.
There’s science behind it too. A psychologist named Jerome Bruner conducted research that concluded that when we remember facts as part of a story, they’re 20 times more likely to be remembered than just as standalone pieces of information.
There are countless articles about the power of story telling, and one of my favourite books of recent times, Storyworthy, by Mathew Dicks covers the topic in depth.
In the spirit of stories… Here’s a fake one that I have put together for the five protagonists mentioned above:
One beautiful, sunny, summer afternoon I walked into my backyard and noticed an excavator had dumped a huge pile of shale on the lawn. That ruins the landscape a bit. On top of it, was perched Carlos from The Hangover. He was crying, reaching up to the stars like he was trying to pluck something out of the air. I thought it strange that he was crying, I always imagined him to talk like an adult!
Then I looked up, and could see that just out of his reach was Joan of Ark riding her horse. Helmet and everything. She was riding it with purpose though, as if trying to get away from someone. Holding on for dear life. And she was! Just behind her was a serial killer.
But there was something weird about this particular serial killer… he was mostly bald, and kicking a soccer ball — a bit like Rio Ferdinand, and he had a beat box on his shoulder blaring rap British rap music.
It sounds a bit like Nancy Drew. Nancy the rappa. What a weird scene.
As I turn around to walk back inside, I notice through the kitchen window that Thad Castle is inside eating parma ham straight out the fridge. What a day.
If you close your eyes now, I bet you can picture all five characters in that story.
Now, I can hear you saying, “How do I have time to remember all of this when I’ve got 15 different people in front of me all rattling off their names”. Well, its 100% possible. Like most things worth learning, it just takes a little bit of practise.
The world record for memorizing binary digits (either 1 or 0) in order, is 273 (Christian Shafer). For that record, he had only 1 minute to memorize as many digits as possible. These memory athletes are obviously highly-trained and have developed this skill extremely well, but it shows what is possible.
Next time you have the opportunity, start in a very small, low pressure situation. Or even start with people you know. Just practise the motion of creating characters and stories. You’ll be surprised how quickly you learn. Your brain becomes extremely good at piecing together creative associations that you can recall at any time.
When you’ve developed this tool, it can become extremely useful.
For anyone you meet during the day, add them to your contact list. Even if you don’t have their number, just add a name and some associated information. Maybe that’s the name of their business, or the character you attached to them.
It’s okay to forget. There’s nothing wrong with, “Sorry, I got distracted by the plane flying past outside, what did you say your name was?”
People appreciate the effort. Have you ever been severely offended if someone forgets your name on a first time meet? Highly unlikely. What’s more annoying is if you meet someone repeatedly and they make little effort to remember your name.
Ask again the first time, and then remember.
I’m of the firm belief that more and more people are associating with the saying that they’re just not “a names person”. And it’s because we’re becoming dissociated with our memories.
Social media is turning us into constantly outward-looking beings. We’re constantly checking on what we’re missing out on, who’s looking better than us, and who has more than us.
It means we’re constantly comparing — how do we stack up to the rest? It makes us insecure about ourselves, and in turn, more self-conscious. So instead of focusing on the person we’re meeting, we’re thinking about how we should be acting.
Rediscover yourself, rediscover your memory.
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