By Allan Britnell
6 simple ways to ensure you’ll never forget a business associate’s name again
Things seemed to be going so well. Your grommets fit their grapples. Their budget was bigger than your expectations. All that was left was to sign the contract. That is, until you asked, “So, Carl, do we have a deal?” and the room fell silent. “Actually, the name’s Ken and I’ll have to get back to you on that …”
An exaggeration? Perhaps. But why risk the faux pas (and potential coup de grace) of forgetting someone’s name when there are easy ways to improve your memory?
Memory expert Bob Gray, author of Right Brain Rapid Recall and president of Whitby, Ont.-based consulting firm Memory Edge Corp., says memory is “absolutely trainable,” and that anyone can remember names with ease. Here are his six top tips:
- You can’t remember what you don’t know. “The first thing you’ve got to do is hear the name,” says Gray. “It sounds obvious but when we’re introduced to people we’re often so preoccupied that we don’t actually hear their name.” Be sure to give your undivided attention to listening to the name.
- S-P-E-L-L it out. After you’ve heard the moniker, spell it out in your head. Accuracy is not important. The idea is to ingrain the name on your brain.
- Ask and ye shall receive. If you hear an unusual or interesting name, inquire about its origins. Any additional information will help make a name more unforgettable.
- Repetition is key. Repeat the person’s name once or twice in the course of your conversation. “But don’t go crazy,” advises Gray. Use it one last time when you part company.
- Associate, partner. A more advanced technique is to associate a variation of a person’s name with something visually striking about them. “Take the person’s name and change it slightly to something that sounds like it but conjures up an image,” suggests Gray. Thus “Ken” becomes “can.” If Ken is wearing a gaudy tie, mentally replace the tie with a can of beans hanging around his neck. At the end of your meeting if you can’t remember Ken’s name, just look at his tie and you’ll think of a can of beans. “The more silly and ridiculous it is,” says Gray, “the more memorable.”
- Use it or lose it. For long-term memory retention, Gray recommends a very specific review schedule. Repeat the name to yourself about an hour after you learn it, then again one day, one week and one month later. With a little practice, you’ll never forget Ken with the can of beans around his neck. Or lose another grapple-grommet contract.
By Marcia Kaye
First published in Chatelaine’s December 2002 issue.
© Marcia Kaye
When memory expert Bob Gray comes to my front door armed with a briefcase full of tests, I think, “Well, he doesn’t look anal-retentive.” I was right. After only a few minutes together, I realize that with his twinkling eyes, British accent and infectious laugh that bubbles up every couple of minutes, Gray is very much the entertainer. He can rattle off the capital city, population and area of every country or tell you which card is missing after glancing through the deck once.
For more than 20 years Gray, who is now based in Whitby, Ont., has been teaching business people around the world to improve their memories in order to increase efficiency and job satisfaction. Gray’s abilities have landed him on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and in the Guinness Book of World Records. Gray says he’s no genius; he simply uses memory techniques to make his average memory seem phenomenal. “If I don’t use the techniques, my memory is no better than anybody else’s,” he says. “My wife can never understand why every Sunday I forget to take out the garbage.”
We get down to business. From his briefcase, Gray pulls out a couple of memory tests for me. I’m not hoping for a phenomenal result; I’d be thrilled with an average one. I put my game face on.
The first test involves a word list, a standard part of any memory assessment, as it tests simple verbal recall. It’s a 15-item list of nouns: book, laptop computer, eyeglasses, cow, frying pan and so on Gray asks me to study the list for two minutes, then write down in sequence as many as I can remember.
To my surprise, and Gray’s, I get them all. “The average person gets four or five,” he says. I beam. I bask in my own brilliance, rejoicing in my perfect memory.
Sadly, my moment of genius is short-lived. I start the next test. I have 2 1/2 minutes to study a 20-digit number. When I try to write it down from memory, I get only nine. A shiver goes up my spine as visions of Alzheimer’s flood back.
In another test I do even worse. I have three minutes to study 20 words and their corresponding numbers, so that when Gray asks, “What’s number 14?” I’m supposed to reply “scissors” immediately, without taking the time to count out. My score out of 20 is only a measly six. This is terrible–isn’t it? Not at all, Gray says. Most people get three or four, and on the number test they get about seven digits. After he spends a few minutes teaching me some mnemonic techniques I have no problem getting all 20 digits and the whole 20-word-and-number list. Two hours later, I can still remember every word and number on every list. “There’s nothing at all wrong with your memory,” Gray pronounces. Then why can’t I remember to do simple errands? “The difference is that now you have 100 per cent focus and a mnemonic technique,” he says.
Why we forget
Now that I’ve talked to the experts and read the research, I’m starting to understand why I can be such an airhead sometimes, and why all of us can have problems with our memories. When normal healthy people of any age forget things, the number one reason is distraction. This is confirmed for me by Gordon Logan, an Edmonton-born psychology professor now teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and an expert on the connection between memory and mental focus. “Dividing attention is generally a bad thing for encoding, retrieving and any kind of mental processing,” says Logan. He explains that if we’re trying to talk on the phone and read our e-mail at the same time, our attention isn’t evenly divided but flips back and forth, like a spotlight. “So if you’re just briefly illuminating parts of different pictures, it may be hard to remember any particular thing.” Today’s busy women are notorious for multitasking, although there’s no scientific evidence that we’re biologically better at it than men.
We forget, too, because we procrastinate. By putting off filling out the field trip permission form, we’ll forget all about it. (And then I’ll misplace the form.) We’re also indecisive. If we can’t decide what to do for Aunt Lou’s birthday–mail a card, send a little gift, give her a call?–we’ll put it out of our minds and forget to do anything. (Am I indecisive? Well, yes and no.) We tend not to remember what we’re not interested in, which is why some kids with perfectly normal memories can’t recall their times tables but can reel off sports stats.
We also forget things because we never really learned them in the first place–such as names. During introductions, we’re often concentrating so much on our own greeting, our sweaty palm and the other person’s appearance that we never really hear the name. Saying “I’m terrible with names” is just an excuse for not bothering, says Bill Clennan of Delta, B.C., a professional speaker who calls himself The Memory Man and who has been giving seminars and keynote lectures on memory for 34 years. With some effort, he promises, you can remember names.
I tried his method and it works. On a recent holiday I focussed and listened to new people’s names and used them at least once during every encounter. I was amazed to discover that not only did people respond more warmly, but they also made extra efforts to learn my name. Someone actually said to me, “Wow, you’re so good with names.”
The upshot of all this: I’m quite sure I have the same memory I’ve always had. It was never perfect, even in my youth (or I would have got better than 68 in Grade 11 physics), but it was good enough and still is. I’ve been experimenting with mnemonic techniques and, for the first time in my life, I know off by heart all the numbers on my driver’s licence, credit card and bank card. For to-do lists, I’ve been working on the chain technique, which involves connecting items through an absurd visual story.
Maybe someday I can be as good as Tulving, who used to wow his students by memorizing lists of 50 words and numbers. Yes, the techniques do work, he assures me. What special mnemonic devices does Tulving use before he goes out shopping? “I don’t use any,” he says. “I make a list.”
Want to know whether you’re losing it? You probably aren’t. Prove it by taking this test. Study this list of 15 items for two minutes and then cover it up or look away (no cheating). Write down all the items you can remember. Result? If you can remember six items or more, congratulations, your brain is clicking on all cylinders. Four to six, you’re average. Less than that? Maybe you just need some practice. Try it again. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor.
Boost your memory
- Go for greens Folic acid appears to lower blood levels of homocysteine, a blood component that impairs memory. Dr. Serge Gauthier, a neurologist and memory expert at the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging in Montreal, suggests getting plenty of folic acid-rich foods such as romaine lettuce, broccoli and orange juice every day and taking a supplement that contains folic acid
- Check out the ginkgo Dr. Gauthier says that ginkgo biloba increases blood flow throughout the body, which may help the brain to function better. He cautions that it can cause rare cases of internal bleeding; those taking a blood thinner should avoid it. Other herbal remedies, such as ginseng, choline, acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid, have not been proven to work.
- Eat breakfast A 2001 study from the University of Toronto and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care found that memory can be enhanced by eating any kind of breakfast, whether carbohydrate or protein.
- Make a list of your worries Students who wrote down their deepest thoughts and feelings about coming to college showed modest memory improvements afterward versus students who merely recorded the day’s events, according to a 2001 study at North Carolina State University and Duke University. Researchers speculate that expressive writing reduces negative thoughts
and sharpens focus.
- Give your memory a break While the adage use-it-or-lose-it is great for your brain, you might also benefit by relying on your memory less. Park in the same general area every time you go to the mall. Always put your keys in the same place.
- Tell yourself a story To remember a list, create a scenario, the more ridiculous the better, says Bob Gray, a memory expert. For instance, you need to pick up ketchup, strawberry ice cream, eggs and a newspaper at the grocery store. Here’s your story: you ram your shopping cart into a huge bottle of ketchup, which explodes and flows all over you in the form of strawberry ice cream. You scoop some up in a cone and insert it into the coin slot of a newspaper box, which is full of broken eggs. With this method, you can easily remember more than 10 items.
- Use mnemonic techniques Memory experts like Bob Gray suggest trying a variety of tools to help kick-start your brain cells. Acronyms work: HOMES has helped thousands of schoolchildren remember the names of the five Great Lakes. For more ideas, check out Gray’s Web site at www.memoryedge.com.