Forget Someone’s Name? What Would Rob Do?

Editor's note: Rob Sachs has been a contributor to NPR for the last 10 years. The following is an excerpt from his new book that offers real life solutions to daily problems like stepping in dog poop, leaving a good voicemail message, getting pulled over and clogging a toilet at a party. It's a fun read, if you enjoy the article check out the book.

By Rob Sachs, Author of What Would Rob Do?: An Irreverent Guide to Surviving Life's Daily Indignities

When nobody else has been around to help out, I've also tried getting someone to talk about her own name. I'd say something like, “I used to get made fun of all the time when I was little because people would call me names like ‘Saxophone' or ‘Sexy Sachs' or ‘Rob my sacks of cats.'” (Okay, nobody ever used the last one.) After sharing my story, I'd ask if she ever got teased, hoping she will give me a funny story that I can use to remember her name. Or sometimes I'd inquire, “What did your family call you when you were little?” Hopefully, it won't be Princess.

If you're not so good at face-to-face reconnaissance, there are less invasive methods for procuring names. In college I used to peek in backpacks, binders, notebooks, or anything that might have a name written on it. Now you can use social Web sites like Facebook or MySpace to see if you can figure out who somebody is through your circle of friends. You can also befriend someone who is really good with names and have him act as your personal Rolodex. Another “more advanced” technique is to challenge a person to a rap battle. The trick is to begin your rhyme with the words, “My name is . . .  ” Mine goes something like this:

My name is Rob,
I'm on the job
And though I eat with my hands,
I ain't no slob.

Then tell her it's her turn and she needs to follow the same format. Sit back and wait for her to give up the goods.

These tricks don't always fly in a work setting (though it would be fun to rap battle with some of my coworkers). There are times when the easiest thing to do is to come clean about forgetting someone's name. Within the first thirty seconds of talking to someone, it's okay to say, “I'm an idiot and I've forgotten your name.” If you're not feeling self-deprecating, a simple “Oh, remind me of your name again?” will do as well. Letting a conversation go longer than five minutes without saying that makes you not only an idiot but a jerk, since the person you're talking to thinks you've been duping him the whole conversation.

My career at NPR has taken me from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and back to D.C. I knew there would be a lot of people I'd recognize but whose names I'd forget. To get some new tricks for the workplace, I called memory expert Harry Lorayne. He holds memory seminars all the time and has a full line of memory-related products. He was at first reluctant to talk to me, since people usually pay a lot of money to get the information he gives. Fortunately, I got him to open up on my specific problem of forgetting names, and he gave me a few hints.

He said that most of the names we forget are ones we never heard in the first place. Many times when people tell us their names, we're not really paying attention. When you hear someone say his or her name, you have to flag it in your brain as a vital piece of information. Lorayne recommended repeating the name right away to try to commit it to memory.

Let's say you're meeting me. I'll say, “Hi, my name is Rob Sachs.” You can first verify that you heard it being pronounced the right way. Say it back to me. “Rob Sachs, is that correct?” Second, you can make a quick association with the name, or start talking about it in the conversation. Ask if Sachs has any relation to Saks Fifth Avenue or Goldman Sachs. (There is none, by the way.) The more you talk about the name right away, the more likely you are to remember it.

Another possibility is to try to associate someone's name with one of his physical characteristics. For instance, if you meet someone named Ben Green and you notice he has green eyes, you can repeat that in your head. Ben Green with the green eyes. Ben who has eyes that are green. Ben's last name is Green. My trick for remembering a name like Mikhail Gorbachev would be to think of the red splotch on his head as being gory. “Gory splotch” sounds like “Gorbachev.” This might be a stretch, but it can work. The idea is to have a visual cue that correlates to the name.

Lorayne said another great thing to do is to use the name as often as you can over the course of your conversation. Try to eliminate all pronouns and just say the person's name instead, while always being careful not to say the name too much, since that can be a little creepy. “So Rob, what do you think about the weather? How about those Phillies, Rob? Rob, what brings you here?” I've tried this out, and to my amazement, it works. People also appreciate hearing their own name, because it makes them feel you care about them, or are a thoughtful person.

What would rob doHarry Lorayne is a pro at this. He can repeat the names of a whole roomful of people he's just met. He told me that if you practice a lot and work on it, over time you will get better at it. These techniques have already started to help me in the office, though I still have one more trick. If I didn't catch someone's name or have forgotten it, I now go to the new searchable online database of NPR employees that contains everyone's picture from their photo ID. It's my own little office facebook, and I've lost more than a few hours of productivity studying it.

Copyright © 2010 Rob Sachs, author of What Would Rob Do?: An Irreverent Guide to Surviving Life's Daily Indignities

About Rob

Rob Sachs, author of What Would Rob Do?: An Irreverent Guide to Surviving Life's Daily Indignities, has spent the last ten years as a producer, reporter, and director for NPR shows, including Morning EditionAll Things Considered, and Tell Me More. He created the podcast What Would Rob Do? in 2006 and serves as its host.