I'd Like You to Meet What's-Her-Face: Strategies for Remembering Names

From the National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury
d Like You to Meet What's-Her-Face: Strategies for Remembering Names

"Hi, Darla," Aretha said, greeting her new friend. Darla stood back silently, her head down; she knew she should remember this lady's name. Her face looked so familiar, yet her name just wouldn't come to mind. The two women had been introduced the previous week at a support group meeting and seemed to hit it off immediately.

"Darla" and "Arlene" illustrate a common problem after brain injury: forgetting people's names. Understandably, people often feel embarrassed about forgetting someone else's name. After all, your own name is very important to you; it is part of how you define yourself, it is your identity. It's important to realize, though, that everyone has trouble remembering names from time to time. Also, it's unrealistic to expect that you will remember everyone's name. Some people have a hard time just learning new names to begin with, while others have trouble recalling names of people they already know.

Try some of the following tips and see if those embarrassing moments become fewer and farther between.

Remembering Names of People When You Meet Them

Pay attention while being introduced.

  • Stop what you're doing.
  • Look at the person. What is it about the way this person looks that I will most likely remember? For example:
    ♦ Size – Heavy, thin, tall, short
    ♦ Hair – Curly, thin, short, long, color
    ♦ Facial features – nose, mouth, eyes
  • Listen carefully to the name. If you don't catch their name when it was originally told to you, ask for it again. Saying it immediately will help you remember it when they walk away.
    ♦ Realize that people are flattered when you take an interest in them.

Save the person's name.

  • Say the name at least three times in conversation. When first introduced, use the person's name several times as you talk to them. For example, you might say:
    ♦ "Hi, Jim, nice to meet you."
    ♦ "So, what do you do for a living, Jim?"
    ♦ "Do you have any kids, Jim?"
  • Ask a question about that person's name (e.g., "Is that Catherine with a ‘C' or with a ‘K'?") or about the person (e.g., "Mary, do you come here often?").
  • Visualize or try to picture in your mind something about the person you are most likely to remember (e.g., shape of their nose, color of their hair, height, weight).
  • End the conversation with their name. For example,
    ♦ "Jim, it was great to meet you!"
    ♦ "Thanks for the information, Terry."
    ♦ "I enjoyed meeting you, Felicia."

To cue your memory for the person's name, try to associate the person's name with:

  • Something or someone familiar to you:
    ♦ Someone you know (For example, your aunt, your brother's girlfriend, your pet goldfish).
    ♦ Celebrity, famous person, or TV/cartoon character (For example, Bush, Wayne, Simpson, Bunker)
    ♦ An occupation (For example, Driver, Gardener, Cooke, Farmer, Baker)
    ♦ A thing or animal (For example, Booth, Hill, Snow, Moon, Wells, Falcon, Beard)
    ♦ Product brand name (For example, Singer, Ford, Webber, Dell, Decker, McCormick, Comet, Whitman)
  • A rhyme. For example, Clark/lark; Puckett/bucket; Crump/slump; Blake/bake; Terry/merry; Teague/league; Blake/lake
  • Familiar-sounding words. For example, Hightower = high + tower; Askew = ask + you; Starkey = star + key; Jackson = Jack + son; Mancuso = man + cue + sew; Andre = on tray.
  • A noteworthy physical feature or personality characteristic. For example, you might think of someone with a big head of blonde hair as "Ryan the Lion"; a very tall girl might be "Tall Tiffany"; a lady with the gift of gab may be "Chatty Cathy."
  • A "mind" picture. The more outlandish and colorful the picture, the easier it will be to remember. Longer names may need to be broken down into syllables to create memorable pictures. The full name should create ONE picture. The person whose name you have made a picture of should be in the picture. For example, to remember the name "Pitchford" you could think of the person pitching something at a Ford Bronco.

A word of caution: You will find that the more "odd ball" your memory cues are, the easier they are to remember. But it's a good idea to keep the cues to yourself so as not to offend anyone.

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

  • Say the name silently to yourself a few times.
  • Try to use the person's name in conversation repeatedly.
  • Introducing the person to others can be an easy way to repeat the name without drawing attention.

When possible, make notes. (e.g., in your memory book/organizer; on a calendar; note pad; program, business card; etc.). Include:

  • The person's name and prominent features.
  • What you talked about.
  • The person's interests, job, family, etc.
    ♦ Review the name often until it is familiar. Try to use the person's name in every day conversation; even if just say it to yourself.

Remembering Names of People You Meet in Groups

Make an acronym, using the letter of each name to spell a word. (e.g.: Randy, Amy, Nat, Kendra = RANK)

Make an acrostic, using the first letter in each name to make a sentence (e.g., Albert, Lois, Chapman, Lester, Alice = All lobsters can live alone)

Keep a file of each of your activities with a list of names and your notes on each person. Review the list before you go to each activity.

When You Can't Remember the Name of Someone You Know

Don't fret – you'll forget. Getting upset will only make it harder for you to recall the person's name. Remember, those chemicals that make your stomach all queasy when you get worried also affect your brain!

Instead of asking yourself "what's his/her name" over and over again, ask yourself other questions about the person besides his or her name. For example:

  • Who is this person's ________ (e.g., husband, wife, child, sister, uncle, etc.)
  • What does this person do _______? (e.g., for a living, for fun, etc. )
  • When did I _________ (e.g., last see, first meet, etc.) this person?
  • Where does this person _______ (e.g., live, work, go to church, etc.)?

Once you can recall other details, their name tends to come to mind.

  • Say the alphabet from A to Z under your breath. Sometimes saying the first letter of their name will trigger your memory.
  • Ask again. If you run into someone whose name you forgot, ask them again. Remember: Most people would rather that you ask their name again than for you to feel badly that you forgot.
  • Have a "I-forgot-your-name" speech, handy just in case. Here are a few sample sayings. You can try one of these, or come up with your own. Practice your "speech" by saying it to yourself several times. Review your speech before you go to a social gathering.
    ♦ "Of course, I remember you, but your name seems to have escaped me."
    ♦ "I'm so sorry. I'm drawing a blank on your name."
    ♦ "Would you please refresh my memory? Your name is...."
    ♦ "Hi! I don't know if you remember meeting me before. My name's [say your name]. And yours?"

Darla decided to take steps to remember the names of the people she meets in her support group. Each time she meets someone new, she stops, looks, and listens to the person. She says the name at least three times while they are talking. Then she writes their name in her organizer, putting a short description next to each person's name. Darla also writes something to associate the person's name with something easy to remember and studies her list before each meeting. Darla's list looks like this:

  • Aretha – curly brown hair, tall. (Aretha Franklin)
  • Sam – short, blond hair, glasses. (Uncle Sam)
  • Brice – long brown hair, pretty (rhymes with rice)
  • Henry – heavy, beard, red hair (1st boyfriend's name; hen red)

My Action Plan for Remembering Names

Here are some ways to do that:

  • I seem to have the most trouble remembering names when ...
  • This is what I am going to do the next time I meet someone new ...
  • This is what I'm going to do to help me remember a person's name after I meet them ...
  • This is what I'm going to do to when I can't remember someone's name ...
  • I will check my plan on this date to see if it's working. If not, I'll need to try another plan


Posted on BrainLine November 4, 2008.

From the National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury, Virginia Commonwealth Model Systems of Care. Chapter reprinted from the NRC TBI publication, Memory Matters: Strategies for Managing Everyday Memory Problems.

Comments (3)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

Very aware of my head injuries. Names do not hold.  Giving time to learn a name when you have fatigue issues not practical. Be aware that you are very forgetful and do the next best thing. Carry an index card. Write down the name and where you met the person. If you need it soon, take it out casually and reread it. When you get home, input the name in a computer program, with the description. You see the person the next day, take out your index card again. Switch from memory to reading...works every time...

I've had memory problems since I was a child. I just visited this site because I've begun to wonder if my head injury from when I was about 8 caused my memory problems. But since I've had challenges remembering names, words to songs and more often than I'd like to admit, faces of people I should recall, I've created many partial solutions over my lifetime (I'm about 61). 1) for name or place recall, I will write the name or word down on a small piece of paper, and place it where I will see it daily. This really helps. 2) iPhone and Outlook directories: under other info, write whatever history you know of a person including people that you both know in common. A picture of them also helps. 3) face recall is a work in progress for me which creates a little anxiety (not severe). As a solution, when I meet someone I really want to remember, I try to study their face and body looking for unusual characteristics that I hopefully will recall. 4) when I meet someone I do not recall that seems to know me, I act like I know them and try to carry on a conversation while listening for clues as to who they are; clues such as places, dates and names. I also listen for when another person if a group conversation, says their name. This works pretty well most of the time. 5) when I was younger, people, especially employees, when they figured out I had a bad memory, would sometimes treat me like I wasn't that smart. I'm a certified public accountant and know that partial memory dysfunction does not mean you're not intelligent. The good news is, as you get older, people and employees expect you to have memory lapses. But I think they also start to listen and watch more carefully for signs of dementia so you really have to employ as many memory aids as possible to keep them guessing. I hope these ideas are helpful.

These are common name/face remembering techniques. I struggle to see how they apply to the brain injured who struggle with memory problems. I have difficulty remembering the names of people I know and have know for a long time, similar to my problems with word finding. The multiple steps required to create the multi-aspect memory clues are overwhelming to many with MCI (mild cognitive impairment) How about some tried and true skills that work for those of us with brain injuries? Otherwise, giving us tips that are designed for the normal person just demonstrate how poor our brain functioning is. They tell me to write things down. I would if I did not forget to write it down or where I put the paper and pen. Is this site just more of the same?