Marshmallow wars with Grandpa (how he taught me to remember names)

My grandfather was… check that… IS an icon.  And by icon I mean he’s an iconic figure.  He’s larger than life, made my childhood super memorable, and knows everyone.  (Okay, everyone is relative, but he knows a TON of people.)

While I and my cousins were growing up, we relished the times spent with him, especially because he allowed us to do things that parents would never let us do: things (like an all-out marshmallow war in his house with 5 bags of jumbo marshmallows), and chase us around the aisles of Toys ‘R’ Us on a kids bike.  In a word, he’s crazy.

For some reason, whenever we were with him it seemed like we were bound to end up at a grocery store for something that he needed to get.  And us kids were always in charge of steering the cart while he tossed paper products over his head for us to catch.  Nine times out of ten we would run into someone that knew him and would call out his name.

“John! John Tapscott!”

“Well, Mary, how are you?”

“Oh, John, how long has it been?”

yadda yadda yadda.

We knew that as soon as he stopped to talk, we were at least 10 minutes delayed.

Inevitably the question would get asked, “Grandpa, who was that?”

“She worked on my campaign years ago” or “I knew her Dad from politics” or “just someone from the old neighborhood”.

What always amazed me was his ability to pull the person’s name out of his subconscious as soon as he saw them.  Without so much of a ‘help me out’ or ‘I’m having a hard time placing you’, he’d pick up the conversation as if he’d seen them yesterday.

It has been one of his gifts and one of the gifts he’s given me over the years.

I once asked him how he remembered everyone’s name and he told me that the sound of someone’s name is the sweetest sound in the world — to them.  While he was running for governor, he realized the power of calling people by name when he was out stumping.  So he got really good at listening to people’s names, remembering them, and making people feel important by calling them something other than: buddy, dude, doc, champ, chachie, charles, man, or some other random moniker.

Ever do that, You?

“Get really good at remembering names, Adam” he’d tell me.  “Someday it will serve you very well.”

Over the years, I’ve picked up on the secrets that make some people really good at remembering names while others are flat out terrible at it.  The first seems overly simple, but here it is:


Our problem is that we don’t pay attention when someone introduces themself to us.  I’ve been doing informal studies about this for years.  When I realized that most people just don’t listen to names, I started asking people what my name was after 3 or 4 minutes of casual conversation.  Most, if not all of them would say, “I’m so sorry, I’m not sure I caught it the first time.”

What they really meant was: I was so preoccupied with the sound of my own name that I didn’t really pay attention to yours. Or, exchanging names is just a formality, I never really intended on remembering what you said.

I once attended a social gathering of small business owners and as I introduced myself to a female business owner in her mid-40’s, she said, “Oh, honey, don’t bother telling me your name ‘cuz I won’t remember it anyway.”  Imagine the warm fuzzies I got from that promise.

Which leads me to the second tip for remembering names:

Tell Yourself You’re Good At Remembering

When I present on college campuses, at conferences, or within companies, people are amazed when I have 15-20 people stand up over the course of about 20 minutes and at the end I name all of them in order.  They’re AMAZED.  As if it’s some special super power or there’s a voice in my ear that’s repeating all the names to me…

The reality is, I tell myself over and over again that I remember everyone I meet.  And the more I tell myself that, the more I believe that I’ll be able to call the people I meet by name.

As a general rule, most people have horrible self-talk.  They program their own minds with the garbage that ends up becoming the script they run whenever they meet someone.  They tell themselves, much like the name-forgetting business owner I met, “I’m just no good at remembering names so don’t bother listening.”  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — tell yourself over and over that you can’t remember names and not only will you not be able to, you won’t even try.

Instead, replace that script running in your head about not being able to remember names with phrases like:

Other people’s names are super important

I remember everyone I meet

Say their name 3 times before I say mine

Everyone I meet is important today

I make others feel good by remembering their names

It may feel cheesy to continually repeat these statements until it’s hard-coded into your brain, but that’s exactly what will happen.  What you must understand is your brain is the most powerful super-computer ever designed.  There will never be a machine that can do what your brain can do.  However, much like a computer that runs on a program, your brain is running on the programming that you’re putting in on a daily basis.

Whether it’s remembering names, birthdays, facts or figures, your ability to pull that information from the recesses of your brain is more determined by what you’re telling yourself on a daily basis than your minds’ physical capacity.

You have the capacity for total and immediate recall, the question is… do you engage it?


For the next 24 hours, your goal is to meet at least 5 new people and pay close attention to their name.  It can be at a coffee shop, grocery store, at school, work, wherever — the point is to initiate conversation with someone new and pay such close attention to their name that it is forever embedded in your brain.

Then, the next time you visit the grocery store, amaze Marilyn in customer service by calling her by name before she ever looks up to greet you!