A memory expert’s guide - how to remember names and faces

Updated: Mar 2

A guide to the basics.



Remembering names is a powerful skill. In fact the most common memory complaint I hear is “I’m so bad at remembering names”. Before training in these memory techniques I used to be one of those people.


But now when I run a workshop or take a class of new dance students I get each person to introduce themselves and store their name readily in my head. This is a skill that can be taught to anyone. You don’t have to be the Australian memory champion to have a champion memory for faces.


I remember the first time I tried my quietly practiced skills on a large group of students. After introductions with 26 students, I went around the room again and for all of them I had the correct name. They broke into spontaneous applause - in that moment I knew I was on to something good.


I want to share this with everyone. Here is a simple guide to the basics of the lifelong mind skill of remembering names and faces.

So, why would you make the effort to train in memory techniques for names and faces?

Because the response is amazing when you remember someone’s name.


In a group setting you can see immediately that a person feels they matter. You’ve noticed them and then they engage. This alone justifies making the effort to get this skill, regardless of what you do in life.


It is human nature to like someone more who has made the effort to remember who you are.

Imagine leaving a dinner party and being able to say to each person with ease “It was lovely to meet you (insert name here)…”


Being able to remember names is empowering. Imagine how useful this in the sales game, or consulting, or any time you meet new people that you are trying to influence.

But I’ve got a bad memory…

The basic steps are, well, basic - so there is no excuse.


Some very simple mnemonic techniques that memory athletes use will help you dramatically.

Step one - concentrate hard on listening to the person’s name as they say it.

This sounds simple but in practice concentrating is challenging.


It is a strong temptation when meeting a person to be rehearsing how you are going to introduce yourself. Changing focus from yourself and your own name to instead focus on the other person is simple and effective. Believe me you won’t forget your own name when it’s your turn. After consciously doing this for a couple of weeks it becomes second nature.


And then repeat their name after they say it. Them: “Hi , I’m Dawn” You: “Hi Dawn, nice to meet you, I’m …(insert name here)”.


Step two - identify a feature on this person's face that is unique and obvious to you.

This is something you do during the introduction.


Dawn may have lovely hazel eyes. Maybe your new buddy has large earlobes, long eyelashes or freckles. It could be high cheekbones, flared nostrils or a flat forehead. Porous skin, bushy eyebrows, the choice is yours. Whatever strikes you first about their head and face. You’ll be surprised how quickly you will begin to notice easily identifiable differences between people.


This step is important and requires practice to get the hang of quickly identifying an individual’s unique features while the introduction is taking place.


If you are aiming to remember this person’s name for longer than just the dinner party/meeting/etc, be careful to choose a feature that does not change. Hair is usually no good, nor is a hat or earrings. Shirt colour is right out.


Step three – find an image for this name, then link it to the feature.

So you know the person’s name, Dawn. And you see she has lovely hazel eyes.


Now picture in your mind that inside those hazel eyes you see a dramatic dawn sun rising. Exaggerate the image, see the rays shine out over the freckles. Easy.


You will be pleasantly surprised next time you meet Dawn that the name will come to you. If it perhaps doesn’t, you need to look at her face and see the feature you most notice. Hazel eyes. The sun image will likely pop into your head and you will have the name.


Images should be what you already know or relate to. The more you practice creating an image for names the more naturally it comes to you, until you hardly need to think about it for most people you meet.


OK, I know that you are thinking I chose Dawn because it is a super easy name for an image. True, guilty as charged. So, what if it isn't such a free kick? Other techniques to the rescue.


An easy image can often be made if their name is the same as a person you already know. Say you know a florist named Sarah, and now meet another Sarah. So choose an obvious image like a flower. It is critical to connect the image to the facial feature you chose, so you could imagine a bright yellow carnation growing out of new Sarah’s long nose. It’s lucky that these pictures you create are private!


Or a name may remind you of a type of person. Maybe the name Darren makes you think of an ocker Aussie, so for a new Darren you obviously picture a beer stubby holder. Now simply attach the stubby holder to the new Darren’s feature of choice, and viola!, a stubby holder is balanced on his shiny bald head. A beer inside it is entirely optional (depends on how much you like him).


Another technique is to focus on the name sound or what it straight away makes you think of. For example if I meet a Vince, I may well choose an image that simply sounds the same, mince (ie mince meat) pops into mind. Vince images get messy. Use the first thing that occurs to you – this will also be the first thing you recall on your next meeting. Trust your instinct.


Sometimes you need to get more creative.


Before I knew any Biancas I used to use an anchor as the image (B anchor, get it?), but was still forgetting this name. As soon as I put a buzzing bee (to remind me of the B) around the anchor it was fixed. These days I know lots of Bianca’s and a plain ol’ anchor will now suffice.

With practice you will build up a mental list of images ready on hand that remind you of the most common names. With less common names you often can use a common name and adapt it. Like Antonio could be an ant tap dancing atop whatever your normal image for Tony is. And of course that combined image is balanced on / stuck into / coming out of Antonio’s feature of choice.


A key to getting this to work is to make it interesting. Instead of just mincemeat balanced on Vince’s large nose you are squashing it in and smearing it around. You should imagine what it would feel like, look like, and smell like. How would he react to it? (Not too well I suspect.) Have some mince dropping off onto that clean carpet. The more senses you can add to the image and the link to the face the better. I warned you it would get messy.


You also need to practice looking normal and carrying on a conversation while making up these mental pictures. Good luck with that at first.

How can I quickly improve my memory for names and faces?

Practice everywhere. Obviously practice when you meet someone but also anywhere else.


It’s amazing how many names we see a day but most of us have never dreamed of trying to learn them all. So our name memory skills don’t improve.


When you read or see the news or you are surfing Facebook or LinkedIn, every name and face you see is a chance to practice. Just have a quick crack at it on the spot. It’s a couple of seconds to think ‘How would I remember this?’.

But, I hear you ask, I meet people on the phone in my job – how can I remember their name when I can’t see them? We will cover that next time… (but it’s simple).


To be able to remember the names of people is a powerful skill. You don’t need to become a mental athlete or memory expert or dedicate endless hours to study. You just need to learn these couple of memory techniques and apply them as you meet new people.


You can become that person everyone talks about:

“Isn’t (insert your name here) amazing at remembering names” they will say….if they remember your name.

Where to practice memory techniques.


And ... there's an app for that. I use these apps while on the train or when I have 10 minutes free.


Minecraft is fun to fill in the moment, but mind craft lasts a lifetime.





Memory League - https://app.memoryleague.com/#!/home

Memocamp - https://memocamp.com/en

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