In A Name

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.'

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare


Shakespeare might have been right about roses, but we all know how embarrassing it can be to forget someone's name. People are flattered ■■ when you remember it, but insulted when you don't. You might as well tell them, 'You have made no impression on me at all. You don't exist in my world. You are completely forgettable.'

I speak from painful experience. For the first thirty years of my life, I forgot people's names with spectacular enthusiasm. In the early days, I used to wade in with clumsy approximations, near misses that still make me squirm today. Then I switched tactics and started to call people 'there'. 'Hello, there,' I would say, smiling weakly, as old friends came up to me at parties. Worse still, they would invariably ask me to introduce them to people I had only just met.

Mercifully I no longer fear introductions. Remembering people's names is such a simple skill, and yet it has changed my life. It could change yours if you are prepared to practise a little. I am more confident in social situations, at parties, at business meetings. It has even made me wealthier, or at least it should have done...

I was once asked to recall everyone's name at a dinner party in Mayfair, London. The hostess wanted me to memorize the first and surnames of all her guests, the majority of whom I had never set eyes on before. There were just over a hundred people in total, and they were seated at various tables around the room.

A wealthy businessman sitting on my right didn't believe that this was possible. He had never met me before, but he had heard that I was a professional card-counter - someone who wins at blackjack by relying on mathematics rather than luck. Laughing at the prospect of memorizing over one hundred names, he offered to stake me £50,000 to play the blackjack tables in Las Vegas if I could pull off the stunt.

As far as I was concerned, it was a one-way bet. I agreed to the hostess's wishes and moved from table to table, discreetly asking one person from each to furnish me with names. Using the method you are about to learn, I absorbed all the guests' names before they had even finished their hors-d'oeu-vres. I returned to my table. 'Got all the names, have you?' the businessman chuckled nervously. He then suggested that if I was so confident, I should start recalling the names at once, in case I forgot them.

I told him I was hungry and would prefer to eat my dinner first. Besides, there was no hurry. I knew that all the names and faces had been stored in my long-term memory.

As the coffee circulated, I stood up and duly went round the room naming everyone, without making an error, much to the amazement of the guests, not least the businessman. He graciously accepted 'defeat', but we have yet to set a date for Las Vegas. The secret to how I did this is very simple: first impressions.


I know exactly what my problem was with remembering names, and I suspect it is the same as yours. Ever since I was a child, I have been bothered by the old adage, 'Never judge a book by its cover.' How many times have you heard it said, 'Don't pigeon-hole people.' 'Don't go on first impressions.'

If you never want to forget someone's name again, I am afraid you must do exactly the opposite: 'Pigeon-hole people!' 'First impressions count!' 'Judge a book by its cover!'


Humans are extremely good at recognizing images they have seen only once. In 1967, the psychologist Shepherd showed a group of people 600 individual slides of pictures, words, and images. He then showed them 68 pairs of slides; one from each pair was from the previous set, and one was new. His subjects were asked to detect the old item. Shepherd recorded an 88 per cent success rate for sentences, 90 per cent for words, and 98 per cent for pictures.

The human face is essentially an image, but psychologists now believe that the brain processes faces quite differently from other images. The existence of prosopagnosia would seem to support this. Prosopagnosia is a rare neurological condition that renders the victims unable to recognize previously familiar faces. Tests have shown that we have difficulty recognizing pictures of faces if they are upside down (Yin, 1970). Inverted buildings, by contrast, present no such problem.

In 1974, Bower and Karlin found that if subjects were instructed to estimate personal characteristics such as honesty and pleasantness, their subse quent memory recognition was enhanced. Bower and Karlin concluded that faces were processed at a deeper, semantic level.

Consequently, I have never understood advice that urges us to ignore our basic, primitive instincts. When a stranger approaches me, I make an instant, intuitive judgement based on their appearance: do I feel comfortable or uneasy, safe or threatened, warm or guarded, indifferent or enchanted? In short, are they friend or foe? An automatic classification process takes place. I then build on that initial reaction to remember the name.


Now that you have been warned that my method is shot through with unethical principles, I can move on to the nitty-gritty details with a clear conscience. I use a variety of techniques, depending on what the person looks like and the circumstances in which I am introduced to them, but they are all dependent on first impressions. As ever, I exercise my imagination (the key to a good memory) and use location, random places this time, rather than a journey.


Wherever possible, study a person's face before absorbing his or her name. Ask yourself whether the person reminds you of anyone else. Somebody you already know perhaps, a friend, a relative, or a work colleague. Or maybe he or she resembles a public figure, an actor, a pop star, a sportsperson or a politician.

Your reaction must be immediate. It doesn't matter if the likeness is vague. The person must simply serve as a reminder, a trigger. Let your mind wander. Your brain will sift, computer-like, through the thousands of stored facial patterns you have gathered over the years. In a split second, it will present you with the nearest or next-best link to the person standing in front of you.

You are introduced to a person who, for whatever reason, reminds you of John McEnroe. You have already done half the work, even though you have yet to discover his real name.

You must now imagine a location closely connected to John McEnroe. A tennis court is the obvious place. Think of the centre court at Wimbledon, based on either what you have seen on TV or, better still, an actual visit. If you can't do this, visualize a local tennis court, any court that springs to mind!

All this has gone on in your head in a second, at most. Again, like the journey method in Chapter 2, the process will speed up with practice.

Once you have established a location, you are ready to process their name. He introduces himself as David Holmes. Take the surname first. What does it make you think of? Holmes might suggest Sherlock Holmes. Imagine him on the court, peering through his magnifying glass searching for evidence of chalk dust.

Admittedly, I have used an obvious likeness (McEnroe) and name (Holmes) to show you the basic principle. With a little practice, however, your brain will make associations and form the relevant image more quickly. If, for example, he had been called Smith, you might have imagined a blacksmith setting up his furnace right in the middle of centre court.

The technique works because you are creating what your memory thrives on: a chain of associations. These are the links which you have made so far:

Face Likeness Location Name

(McEnroe) (tennis court) (Holmes)

When you come to meet him later in the evening, you will once again think that he looks like John McEnroe. This makes you think of a tennis court. You will then remember the preposterous sight of Sherlock Holmes on his knees with a magnifying glass, and you have got the name: Holmes.

To remember the first name, in this case David, think of a friend or an acquaintance callcd David. Introduce them into the tennis-court scene. Perhaps he is sitting in the umpire's chair.

More often than not, you can think of someone you know with the same first name. But if no one called David springs to mind, use a public or literary figure. You might think of David and Goliath. Picture someone small wielding a sling and tennis ball on the court.

It is very important to use as many of your senses as you can when you are picturing the scene: see the brown patches on the well-worn court, feel the atmosphere of the centre-court crowd.

What if David Holmes doesn't remind you of John McEnroe? As far as you are concerned, he looks like a well-known politician. You simply apply the same process. The House of Commons would be a suitable location. Imagine Sherlock Holmes at the dispatch box, berating the Prime Minister. Your friend, David, is sitting in the speaker's chair, desperately trying to maintain order.

When you come to meet the person later, his face again reminds you of the politician. Cue the House of Commons, Sherlock Holmes at the Dispatch-Box, David in the chair and you have got the name: David Holmes.

Or perhaps David Holmes reminds you of your uncle. Imagine Sherlock Holmes at your uncle's house, knocking at the door and smoking his pipe. Your uncle invites him in and introduces him to David, your friend.

And so on. You must use the first associations that come into your head. They are the strongest, most obvious ones, and you are more likely to repeat them when it comes to recalling the person's name.


This method is all very well, you say, but by the time I've worked out the link between face, location and name, thought of McEnroe, been off down to Wimbledon and met Sherlock Holmes, the real David Holmes will have moved on through sheer boredom. Speed comes with practice. It took me barely fifteen minutes to remember over one hundred faces. And the brain is naturally very good at creating associative images.


What is going on in your head when you are say, 'Oh, her name's on the tip of my tongue'? Your brain is desperately trying to think of the location you are most used to seeing her in, hoping that this will spark off her name. Failing that, you try to recall the last place where you saw her. It is the same when you lose your car keys. 'Whereabouts did I see them?' 'When did I have them on me last?' You are trying to retrace your steps.


What do you do if you are confronted with someone who resembles no one, not even vaguely? If this happens, try to decide what type of person he or she is. Despite what you might have been told, categorize them! Once again, hang on to the first association that comes into your head.

Let's assume that you meet someone who reminds you of a typical bank manager. Go through exactly the same mental process as before, this time using your local bank as the location. You are then told his name: Patrick McLennan. Take his surname first. What does it make you think of? Assuming you don't know anyone called McLennan, concentrate on the word itself: 'Mac' and 'Lennan'. Imagine your bank manager in a dirty old raincoat, a flasher's mac, exposing himself to John Lennon. This rather distressing scene would take place in the bank itself.

Now the first name. You happen to know someone called Patrick, who travels abroad a lot, so imagine him standing in a very long queue for the Bureau de Change, waiting to change money. Everyone is naturally shocked at the bank manager's appalling behaviour, not least John Lennon.

When you come to meet this person later in the evening, you would, once again, think that he looked like a typical bank manager. The sordid scene would come flooding back in an instant, and you have his name.

The fact that he is called McLennan and not McLennon is not important, unless you have to write his name down; they are pronounced the same. You must always link the image to how the word is pronounced, rather than spelt. (Featherstonehaugh is pronounced 'Fanshaw', for instance; and 'Chumley' is actually spelt Cholmondeley.)

Similarly, it is important to preserve the order when you are splitting up a name into syllables. You know the bank manager is exposing himself to John Lennon, so 'Mac' comes before 'Lennan'. It is fairly obvious in this case, but it becomes more tricky with complicated, polysyllabic names.

Clothes are also important when you are using types. If I met a woman in jodhpurs and a puffa jacket, I would immediately think she was a horserider. If I met a man wearing a loud tie and shirt, I would think he was in advertising. In each case, I use the type to trigger off the most obvious setting: horserider, field or stable; advertising executive, the television room; fashion model, a catwalk; estate agent, an office in the high street.

Only you know what a typical bank manager, fashion model, accountant, dustman, cleaning lady, journalist, estate agent, or second-hand car salesman looks like. My idea of a librarian might be your idea of a school teacher. Your

Arfur Daley might be my copper. The way we categorize people is based on thousands of previous encounters, either in real life, on TV or in books. You are your own best judge. And no matter how morally wrong it might be to go on appearances, it is the best way to remember names.


Some people simply don't remind us of anyone, or any type. They are so bland and uninteresting as to be instandy forgettable. When this occurs, you must use your present surroundings as a location.

Let's assume you are holding a party in a restaurant and are introduced to a guest called Jenny Fielding. Her face reminds you of absolutely no one; her clothes are characterless. In this situation, switch immediately to her name and your present surroundings. 'Fielding' makes you think of a cricket fielder. You happen to know someone else called Jenny, so imagine your friend Jenny dressed in full cricket regalia with her hands cupped, poised to catch a cricket ball in the corner of the restaurant.

What happens if you don't know of anyone named Jenny? You must make one further mental link. Imagine, for example, a donkey (a jenny is a female donkey) acting as a cricket fielder (but don't tell your guest!), or even place an electric generator (genny) at silly mid-off, over by the door. As ever, the more bizarre the image, the more memorable.

Later on, when you are talking with her and a friend of yours approaches, wanting to be introduced, you will think the following:

You arc once again reminded of how bland and unlike anyone else this woman is. In such circumstances, you know there must be a link in the present location. Throwing the briefest of glances around the restaurant, you recall the cricket match you had imagined earlier...there is the donkey again, shying away from a fierce cover drive. A donkey fielding reminds you of... 'This is Jenny Fielding. Jenny, this is my old friend...' Daft, I know, but it works.


Sometimes you might be given a person's name before you have had time to study their face.

'You must come and meet Victoria Sharpc,' says your boss at the office party, 'I am sure you will like her.' Dragging you by the arm, he takes you over to her. She is a very important person in the company hierarchy and you have only just joined. What do you do?

If I were in this situation, knowing that I had to remember her name, I would think the following, all of which I am imagining now as I write:

Victoria: reminds me of Victoria waterfalls. Sharpe... razor sharpe... someone in a canoe using an enormous razor blade as a paddle, literally cutting through the water. The moment my boss introduces us, I simply imagine her in the canoe, teetering on the edge of the falls.

Let me give you another example. I was once rehearsing for a TV show (iTV's You Bet!) and was told that I would be accompanied by a professional croupier named Jan Towers. Before 1 had even seen her, I couldn't help thinking of the Tower of London covered in a thick coating of strawberry jam ('Jan'). As soon as we were introduced, I imagined her dealing out hands of blackjack inside the Tower of London using a very sticky deck of cards.

All you are doing when the name comes before the face is reversing the earlier chain of associations and missing out the look-alike stage.

Name Location Face

Although I was putting the cart before the horse, the woman was indelibly linked to her name, thanks to the Tower of London setting. She still is to this day.


Sometimes there is a very obvious link between a person's physical appearance and his or her name. In such cases, there is no point in ignoring it. The 'feature link' technique, as 1 call it, is a favourite with 'memory men' for shows and party tricks and can work very effectively.

If, for example, you are introduced to a Mr Whitehead and he appears to be greying above the ears, you imagine someone pouring a pot of white paint over his head. A Mrs Baker comes up and introduces herself. You notice immediately that she has her hair tied in a bun, so you make the obvious connection.

These are obvious examples, I know, but as far as I am concerned, this is the only time when the technique should be used. There has to be a glaring connection between name and appearance.

What you are effectively doing is using the subject's face as a location in which to place their name. But the features can start to overlap after a while, and the technique requires obvious names. Besides, why limit yourself to such a small map as the face, when you can let your imagination remind you of a whole village, a country, or even another part of the galaxy...

During a recent show, somebody called Paul Mitchell asked me how I remembered his name. I told him I could imagine a friend of mine called Paul trying delicately to pick up a fragile shell ('-chell') wearing a thick glove ('Mit-') on board the USS Starship Enterprise. 'Why Star Trek?' he asked. I told him it was because he reminded me of Mr Spöck. (I was using technique 1, first impressions. Look-alike: Spöck; location: Starship Enterprise; name: Mit-chell; first name: my friend Paul.)

The look on his face taught me that you should never fully disclose the details of your mental associations. As it happened, Paul Mitchell reminded me of Mr Spock's manner, rather than his aural attributes. Sadly, no amount of convincing was sufficient, and I fear the poor chap ran off to the nearest mirror.

Whichever technique you use, the secret of my method is in that first, split-second reaction to seeing a face. Your brain makes an instinctive association that must be cherished. Grab hold of it develop it - and let your imagination do the rest.

One last point: take control of the situation when you are being introduced to people. This might sound obvious, but if you arrive at a party and the hostess reels off the names of ten people all at once, stop her. 'Hang on, one at a time, please. And your name was?' Hear the name correctly and get the person to repeat it if necessary. Say it back to the person as well. It might sound a litde awkward, but it is not half as bad as forgetting someone's name two minutes later.


Occasionally, as part of my show, I am asked to memorize a list of people's names. I am not allowed to see the people; all I am given is a seat number in the audience. Surprisingly, this is almost easier than actually seeing their faces. In Chapter 2, I explained how to use a mental journey to memorize a simple shopping list. When I have to remember a list of people, I simply visualize a person at each stage of a journey, as opposed to an item of shopping.

It is quite an impressive trick to pull off at a party, particularly if you know in which seat everyone will be sitting. You simply number the positions logically, and relate them to stages along your journey.

Let's assume you want to remember a list of ten names in order, the first three of which are Michael Woodrow, Gayle Wheeler and Marcus Spiertanski.

Michael Woodrow: Using the journey around your house (see Chapter 2), you imagine waking up to discover your bedroom is flooded and all your possessions are floating around. Your friend Michael is sitting in an old WOODen tea-chest, Rowing gently out of the door.

Gayle Wheeler: A terrific GALE blows open your bathroom window. The wind is so strong that one of the WHEELS from your car flies through the window, narrowly missing you, and bounces into the bath with a splash.

Marcus Spiertanski: A pop star called Mark is standing in your spare room, waving a United States (US) flag. Suddenly a SPEAR flies through the air and knocks him to the ground. A huge, TANNED SKIER steps forward and puts his foot victoriously on the slain pop star's chest.

You must use your own imagination in any way you can. Let it take you off in all directions, but remember to preserve the order of syllables in longer names. No name is insurmountable, providing you break it up into its constituent parts.

Once you have done all ten people on your list, simply move around the house, reviewing the journey, recalling the scenes and, hopefully, remembering the names.


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