Job Search Tip of the Week #26 (2018)


I don’t think it should be socially acceptable for people to say they are “bad with names.” No one is bad with names. That is not a real thing. Not knowing people’s names isn’t a neurological condition; it’s a choice. You choose not to make learning people’s names a priority. It’s like saying, “Hey, a disclaimer about me: I’m rude.”

– Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

What’s your name again?

You might be on to something, Mindy. According to Kansas State University psychology professor Richard Harris, the ability to remember has more to do with your motivation than your memory: The more interest you show in a topic, the more likely it will imprint itself on your brain.

So if you find yourself struggling to remember people’s names despite using them every chance you get in conversation without making it awkward, it may be time to trick your brain into finding names interesting. That, we can help you with.

Memory 101

For those of you who never took a cognitive psychology course (or ironically, forgot everything you learned from one), here’s what you should know about memory in order to improve yours:

Encoding is one of the three major processes of memory. It involves taking data gathered from the world around us and converting it into information that can be stored in the brain and later recalled from memory.

There are three levels at which you can encode:

  1. Shallow. In this level, you perceive the physical and sensory qualities of a stimulus.
  2. Intermediate. In this level, you recognize the stimulus and give it a name or label.
  3. Deepest. In this level, you give the stimulus meaning, and make associations with it.

To illustrate how the different levels of encoding take place, imagine this scenario: You’re at a networking event when you see someone coming towards you, smiling widely (shallow). You recognize that the person coming towards you must be someone you’ve met before (intermediate), and you start walking towards him or her (deepest). You engaged in the deepest level when you associated the approaching person with a social interaction with a familiar person.

Research shows that the more in-depth you process information (i.e., the more meaning you give to and the more associations you make with a stimulus), the more likely it’ll be stored in memory and you’ll be able to remember it later.

However, memory recall is a function of not only the depth but the elaboration of encoding. Elaboration is the extensiveness of encoding at any given level. In other words, likelihood of recall is positively correlated with not only the meaning given to and number of associations made with a stimulus, but also the additional details observed.

Using the previous illustration as an example, elaboration in the shallow level could mean also hearing your name being said loudly; in the intermediate level, identifying the person as a familiar man and not a woman; and in the deepest level, associating the current event not just with previous social interactions, but also those you’ve had specifically with the man coming towards you. Associating external data with personal values and past experiences is referred to as self-referencing, an effective type of deep elaboration.

So how exactly can you effectively elaborate?

Memorize with Mnemonics

Don’t have hyperthymesia or a super autobiographical memory? Rest assured: You can train your brain to better retain information using mnemonics.

Mnemonics are learning techniques that allow you to personalize information, and thus more easily and quickly recall information. Disclaimer: It takes time to create, learn, and practice mnemonics. But it’s worth it.

There are numerous mnemonic devices, but below are the three that we’ve found the most practical and useful when networking:

  1. Imagery & The Link System / Chain Method

    Storing information both pictorially and verbally provides more avenues for recall and thus increases your chances of remembering it over time, according to psychologist Allan Paivio.

    How to do it: Create mental images that represent the information you want to remember. The more vivid, exaggerated, strange, humorous, or emotion-evoking the image is, the easier it’ll be to recall later. You can also add movement to the image to represent the flow of an association or to help you remember actions. Connect images together to illustrate concepts that represent one idea or person or to remember lists.

    How to apply this at a networking event: Use it to remember people’s names, and salient information such as their occupation and interests and hobbies. For example, if you met our founder and president Jared Franklin, you might picture an origami ring (“He went to Jared‘s!”) made with a $100 dollar bill (Benjamin Franklin‘s the face). If you took it a step further, the ring might be on the paw of a badger (Jared went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose mascot is Bucky Badger). In this case, the implications of these representations may be obvious, but remember: The image doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else but you!
  2. Chunking

    Research suggests that your short-term memory can only hold 7 +/- 2 items at a time, for 30 seconds.

    How to do it: Break down larger pieces of information into smaller “chunks” that are easier to manage.

    How to apply this at a networking event: Ideal for those quick “text-me-your-contact-info-and-we-can-discuss-business-further-here’s-my-number-glad-to-meet-you” moments. You break down the ten-digit phone number into three groups (area code, middle three numbers, and last four digits) and remember it by the label. For example, “617-227-5000” becomes “Boston, two-hundred twenty-seven, five thousand.”
  3. The Method of Loci: Roman Room vs. Memory Palace/Journey Method/Familiar Path

    The concept behind Roman Room and Memory Palace/Journey Method/Familiar Path are very similar. However, as their names suggest, The Roman Room uses objects around the room to associate with unrelated information. The Memory Palace/Journey Method/Familiar Path uses rooms throughout a house or a familiar route to recall related or sequential information. We combined these two techniques to suit our networking purposes, as detailed below.

    How to do it: This strategy consists of assigning images that represent the information you want to remember to physical objects or locations. Think of a layout of a space you’re extremely familiar with, like the the floor plan of your house or office. The more familiar you are with your choice, and the more static (unchanging) it is, the easier it’ll be for you to recall information you’ve assigned to it. Commit to memory a “route” of the rooms with specific stand-out “stops” (objects in the room). The “route” and “stops” you decide should naturally form a progression so that it’s easy to remember. Mentally attach information to each “stop” along your “route.” When it’s time to recall the information, visualize walking through the “route” and visiting each room and all its associated “stops.”

    How to apply this at a networking event: Envision the rooms in your house or office and key objects within each room. “Assign” each person you meet a room, and facts and observations about him or her to the objects. Then at the end of the networking event, “go through” your house or office, visiting each of the rooms (mentally, you’ll be going through the list of people you met in the order you met them, aka the Memory Palace/Journey Method/Familiar Path method). The objects in each room will help you recall pieces of your conversation with each particular person that you can then refer to in your follow-up email to add a memorable, personal touch (aka the Roman Room method).

    This one’s a bit confusing, so if you’re still lost, check out this video:

Think you’re ready to take these mnemonic devices on a test drive? Check back next week to learn how to incorporate the art of networking into your job search.

Remember: The “I’m just not good with names” and “Why bother meeting people, I’m not going to remember anything about them anyways” excuses stop here. Take the time and put in the effort to improve your learning and memory skills and become an effective networker.

Sound Off: What mnemonic devices do you utilize to help you during networking events?

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Video Credit: Uploaded by YouTube user Howcast