When you are bad with names and need to remember a lot of them

I am really bad at remembering names. Sometime in my early decades as an adult, I learned techniques that worked for me that helped improve both my short-term and long-term recall of a name. For example, if I met someone new at an event I would say their name three times during that meeting, like at the beginning “It’s so nice to meet you Sally”, in the middle “Sally, where did you say you grew up?” and at the end: “I hope to see you again soon Sally!”. Then in the subsequent days I would think back to something memorable about our conversation and reinforce when I met them and what came of our meeting.

Unfortunately, this has all gone out the window as a faculty member. This is for two reasons: 1) I meet  A LOT of people and 2) I have so much going on I don’t have time to indulge in remembering encounters or using those techniques that used to work for me as a graduate student or postdoctoral associate.  For example, at a NIH study section or at a conference, I might meet between 20 and 50 people in the course of just a couple of days.  During the course of a semester of visitors to the department or other departments another 20-30 people. During a visit to another university, possibly 15 people. This is in addition to the hundreds of faculty that I have encountered at my own institution or the hundreds of students I have taught and advised. I have different techniques for quickly learning student names, but here let me share what I have learned to keep track and trigger remembering specific names and events when it comes to scientific encounters.

Here is my current process:

  1. I keep a list, technically an Excel spreadsheet, that includes the following information (currently, there are 150 entries in my “meeting list”):
    1. Who – literally their name
    2. Where did I meet them – for example, they visited for a seminar and we met for 45 minutes during their visit
    3. When did I meet them – i.e. the date
    4. Where are they from – i.e. their institution and department
    5. Something brief about what we talked about. This usually includes something about their research, something we have in common, and possibly a personal note that might help jostle my memory regarding the bigger picture of their visit or our conversation.
  2. I update this list immediately (within 72 hours) of meeting someone, visiting another university, attending a conference, etc.
  3. When I update this list I scan back through and review previous meetings, reaffirming memories of specific meetings or people.

How I use this meeting list: 

In addition to helping me remember specific people or encounters, this list is really useful for a number of things.

  1. When it comes time to give a suggested list of researchers who could evaluate my tenure case, this list likely contains almost all of my suggestions.
  2. If I have to make a decision to go to one conference or another, I can look at the last time I went to this conference and make a data-driven decision — did I meet people there that had me really excited about possible collaborations or new directions in research?
  3. Travel is difficult and this list is a good reminder of the benefits of visiting other universities or attending conferences. In this list too, I note if that person specifically suggested I come to visit their institution.
  4. If I follow up on a meeting, I can be sure my facts are accurate and not based off my fallible memory. For example, “Dear X, it was so nice to meet you during your visit here in March. I was thinking about our conversation about Y and … “