I admit this may not seem like such a big deal to many (or most) readers, and I know it’s a fairly common complaint. However, I think remembering names is a critical tool in a lawyer’s networking toolkit, and worth improving on.
I truly appreciate that moment where someone I’ve met previously remembers me. I suspect we all do. It conveys the message that you’re memorable and a person valued a previous encounter with you. In the business context, creating those kinds of positive impressions is fundamental to building relationships — and a network. Conversely, forgetting someone’s name and doing the awkward dance of trying to find it out (“So, how do you spell your name again?” Reply: “Uh, T-O-M.”) is worth avoiding.
I find I forget names more easily in a business context than in a social one. I’m not sure why but suspect it’s because when I meet someone at a professional event, I’m focused on my handshake, saying my name clearly, making appropriate conversation, and greeting all members of a group equally. In other words, I’m focused on everything but remembering names. A colleague of mine also pointed out it is hard to distinguish and remember people when they’re all wearing dark grey suits!
This past month, I decided to research strategies for better name recall and put these strategies in practice at a two-day conference I was attending out of town. I figured there would be plenty of new people and names there, and I was right.
When I did an online search I was astounded at the number of resources I found for remembering names. There are entire books on various strategies (eg: Benjamin Levy’s Remember Every Name Every Time). One of the most comprehensive articles I found was from Forbes.com.
After reviewing several resources, I decided to try these three strategies:
1. Repeat the person’s name over and over in my head. Many sources suggest repeating it out loud, but that seems strange (and outright inappropriate in a public setting!) to me. Instead, if I meet a lawyer named Tim, I’ll say aloud, “Hello, Tim, good to meet you” but in my head will think “TIM! TIM! Timmy. Tim!” Sounds ridiculous, but I’m hopeful.
2. Create a mnemonic device. What makes this person memorable? Turn that into something catchy, like “Tall Tim from Torys Toronto.”
3. Imagine the person’s name written on their forehead. This was some of the strangest advice I read, but given that I tend to learn best by reading, I thought it just might work.
What worked, what didn’t
I had plenty of chances to test these strategies when I attended the conference. The event kicked off with a welcome reception and cocktail party — a perfect opportunity to put my ideas to work.
On my way to the party, I ran into a colleague I’ve met several times before. She introduced me to her friend, a lawyer I had never met. His name was Ari, and he told us a fantastic story. He had the tremendous luck of arriving at the hotel late, only to be upgraded for free to the hotel’s $2,600/night presidential suite due to lack of space. My memory trick for Ari became “Ari Ferrari”, because a guy in the presidential suite most certainly drives a luxury vehicle. I met him three other times at the conference and could greet him with a warm, “Ari, how’s the presidential life today?”
I found imagining the name written on the person’s forehead really distracting. I actually caught myself looking at a new person quizzically (it was a long name, and he had a small forehead, how would it fit?!), which is just strange behaviour. I scrapped that strategy quickly.
The repetition exercise was very helpful. I repeated the names in my head whenever I spotted a familiar person throughout the conference. Even if we didn’t speak, the reminder of their name as we crossed paths helped to reinforce the memory.
The mnemonic devices were useful and fun to create. What I found to be most important, though, is focus. When I really focused on a person’s name as vital information (like driving directions), I found it much easier to recall later.
Going forward, I want to use those first few seconds of a meeting to focus on the person and his or her name, rather than other surrounding distractions. In a business where a lawyer’s name is her brand, and where building relationships is important to building one’s practice, name recall is truly a skill worth developing. Remembering an individual’s law firm affiliation is important, too, but lawyers change firms all the time. I want to remember the lawyers I meet as individuals, not just that lawyer from (insert firm here).
At a small group gathering of five or six people toward the end of the conference, one of the partners I attended with told everyone about my name recall challenge. He dared me to name each person at the table, some of whom I had met just minutes earlier! I passed with flying colours.
Now if only I could use these strategies to remember my dry cleaning.