10 Tips For When You Forget A Name

We’ve all been there: you’re approached by someone you know you’ve met before, but when your brain reaches into its recesses to grab their name, it’s more elusive than the Scarlet Pimpernel.

So what can you do?

More than you might think.

In an effort to offer you as much practical advice as possible, I decided to ask my LinkedIn community what solutions they have for a forgotten name – and it turns out there are plenty. So here’s a rundown of their (and my) 10 top tips:

1. Ignore the problem and it’ll come to you

This tends to be my default. I’ll start off by saying an energetic and slightly OTT “Helloooo!” in a tone that says, “I totally know who you are!”, with a big smile on my face that says, “And I’m really pleased to see you!”

Then, as the conversation progresses, I grab any bit of detail that signposts me to what they do, or the company they work for, or where we’ve met before. That’s usually enough to jog my memory and as soon as their name pops into my head I drop it into the conversation so they know I’ve definitely remembered it.

Lone Enger offers an extra tip here: she recommends running through the alphabet in your head. So if it is a man she thinks: Alan…Bart…Carl…David…and so on. When she gets to the right initial letter, the name usually comes to her.

2. Admit defeat

Of course, sometimes the signposts don’t appear or your brain is refusing to follow them. In that scenario it’s best to admit defeat. (This was the most popular tip people gave and definitely one I follow.) Some suggested phrasing was: “I know we’ve met before but I’ve forgotten / I just can’t remember / I can’t quite place your name.”

3. Get it in writing

Chris Partington also suggests just asking their name, but in a less direct way, by finding a reason to request a business card.

4. Ask their name – but deny you’d forgotten it

A slightly sneakier tactic was suggested by David Ventura: You simply ask “What’s your name again?” When the person replies – for instance, “It’s Jennifer”- you then say “No, I know it’s Jennifer, I mean your surname…I wouldn’t forget your first name would I?” (David did add the disclaimer that, whilst he has this in his toolkit, he’s never had the courage to use it.)

5. Check the spelling

A different tip on the same theme comes from Simon Wilkins. He suggested saying, “How do you spell your name?” and whichever one they spell, you follow with, “No, I meant your first name / surname” (choosing the relevant one). One person reading this suggested that might be a bit embarrassing if the person had an easily spelt name, such as Bob Smith. But Simon pointed out even the name Smith can be spelt a couple of different ways.

6. Enlist technology to help

Using your phone to get a name was Miriam Shaviv‘s tip. She suggested telling the person you’re going to text them something or follow up with a piece of info, then hand them your mobile and ask them to pop their number in – making sure you’re still on the screen asking for their name.

Paul Temple had a variation, in that he asks for their number then asks the person to confirm how their name’s spelt, as he’s saving it to his phone. He added it, ‘Works every time!’

7. Call them something else

A number of people suggested removing the need for remembering a name by using a more general term. For Kate Lister, it’s reverting to her default setting of “Darling” (and keeping her fingers crossed nobody comes over for an introduction). Alex McCann calls them “Mate”. Andy Coupland goes with “Fella” when it’s a bloke and “My dear” for a more mature woman, or “Missy” for younger females.

My business mentor Philip Dearing told me he’ll use the words “Old chap” with a friendly physical gesture and a conspiratorial tone of voice for a man, and a variant for a lady.

I should add that this tip is definitely a case of choosing a word that matches your personal brand. Because if it’s too far out of your usual vocabulary, it’ll just sound weird.

8. Offer up your own name

Recalling some sales training he’d been given, Steve Dutton recommended saying, “Hi it’s [insert your name]. Good to see you again.” Typically the response includes the other person replying and offering their name. (Unless, as he points out, they’ve had the same training!)

9. Take a gamble

My old mate Thor Holt said that his favourite way of dealing with a forgotten name is to play Random-Name-Russian-Roulette. Apparently, you say, “Hello [insert the VERY first name that pops into your mind]” and then note whether you’ve pulled the trigger on live ammunition or a blank. He assures me it’s ‘a heck of a lot of fun’. (I’ll leave you to decide if he was being sarcastic or not.)

10. Ask someone else

This one can only be used if you’ve yet to talk to the person whose name you’ve forgotten (but was such a good tip I didn’t want to leave it out) and comes again from Philip Dearing. He suggests asking the person you’re currently with, “The chap standing at two o’clock to you, just remind me where he works now?” Invariably they reply with “Oh, Tom’s now at…” You can then drift over and feel entirely comfortable with your opening remarks.

Turn it on its head

So there you have 10 tips for those situations where you’ve forgotten someone’s name.

One last point I wanted to share, which was flagged by Martin Hartley, is that making a concerted effort to remember someone’s name – especially if you know you’re going to be seeing them again – can really create a positive impression of your personal brand.

Martin had recently changed jobs and on his second visit to the company’s London office, where over 500 people work, the lady on the till in the cafe not only knew his name but also remembered who he had lunch with the first time he was there. As he said, “Just amazing.”

What other tips can you share that help smooth the way when a name’s forgotten? Or have any of your techniques backfired? It’s a problem that happens to all of us, so I’d love to hear your views with a comment below.

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2 responses to “10 Tips For When You Forget A Name”

  1. Mike Richards says:

    Great tips as always Jennifer.
    My tip would be that often I will often be meeting them when I am at an industry conference with a colleague. They will say ‘Mike, how are you?’ Expecting me to say ‘oh Bob how are you?’ BUT if I’ve still drawn a blank using a few of your tips above I simply introduce my colleague.

    I’ll say ‘Let me introduce you to Danielle she runs my UK desk’, Danielle takes over and says ‘hi I’m Danielle’ in turn 99% of the time they volunteer their name to her, embarrassment dodged and name gained!

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