I walked into the holiday celebration and surveyed the room filled with a hundred guests. Fifty employees and their spouses. One hundred names to remember. I straightened my dress and smiled. No problem.
People always tag me as a hyper-extrovert born with a photographic memory. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, I’m an alpha-introvert with a trained and practiced set of communication skills. Nothing natural about it.
My job as a corporate pilot required a strong, reassuring voice when I spoke to senior executives riding on the planes. My job as a corporate spouse, however, demands I take a sincere interest in the people that support my husband. In order to survive in both positions I developed an action plan. A strategy that helps me remember names, occupations and personal details of people I meet. Even if the group numbers in the double-digits.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
p>The meet and greet.
Large groups, quick introduction:
When meeting someone new, look the person straight in the eye and then focus on their mouth as they say their name. If you miss it on the first pass, politely ask them to repeat it. (Parties are often loud and it can be difficult to hear.)
Then, use their name while introducing yourself. “Hello, their name, I’m your name.”
Make a mental note about something unique or significant about this person. A physical trait, style of clothing, unusual piece of jewelry, an accent, or uncommon name. (This should be fairly easy, we all have distinguishing characteristics. It’s okay to use a little humor, after all, this memory cue is in your head.)
Before you move on to the next guest, make sure to offer a polite exchange. I like to make an observation or comment on the occasion. For example: “What a festive evening or there is a lot of good energy in this room tonight.” (Any general comment will do, but the most important part of this two second statement is that you make it sincere, your own. Coined, salesy sayings such as “It’s nice to see you” usually leave an uncomfortable silence. Instead, if you create a comment that ends in a question, you will give your new acquaintance an easy way to comment and then make a polite transition to the next guest. (Not to mention, you may learn something about them by the way they answer.) Here’s one I like to use: “The host (insert a name or company) always throws such a fantastic party, don’t you think?”
After the guest responds, go ahead and traverse the rest of the mass one introduction at a time.
Small group, longer exchange:
Now that you’re in less of a rush, speak slowly and clearly acting as if, for that moment, the person opposite you is the only one in the room. Use the above name repetition technique: make sure you hear their name and then repeat it back when you introduce your own.
Beyond the one minute mark:
Listen. As your acquaintance is speaking don’t let your mind jump ahead to what clever thing you’re going to say next. (This includes allowing your eyes to wander, checking out who else is in the room) Seriously listen. If the person is waiting for you to take the lead ask a probing question.
What kind of work to you do? (People will usually give a general answer like accountant, lawyer, mechanic, baker. When they do, ask a quick follow-up. “What kind of accountant…”
Have you always been in that position?
Is your degree in that field?(Most people have great stories about how they wind up in their jobs. This is an easy, comfortable topic for them to share.)
If you are uncertain if a person is at home or out in the workplace just go ahead and ask.
“Are you working at home or out in the workplace?”
This gives stay at home parents, consultants or people with unconventional occupations a chance to share there day-to-day schedules without any awkward explanations.
Often times stay at home parents answer this question with, “I’m at home raising my children. Georgia who is eight, Austin who is six.” (Now you have more information to build on for follow-up questions.)
If you find yourself at specialized conferences or corporate dinners where there is a lot of high-level “shop talk”, don’t be afraid to ask universal questions.
Recently I was at an event and assigned a seat next to a very high-profile Army general. Now I could have spent days reading his autobiography and reviewing articles on his strategic policies (which, by the way, if you’re really interested, go ahead in do the research) but instead I leaned over at the stiff officer and said, “iPhone or Blackberry?” The general looked at me and smiled. We spent the next four hours discussing the pros and cons of handheld devices.
Other examples of universal questions:
Natural gas or coal?
Hybrid or electric?
Mac or PC?
OU or OSU? (Forgive me, I’m in Oklahoma.)
But my point is, there are always topics and interests we all share as human beings. If you find yourself in an area where you’re totally outgunned, shift the conversation to a universal topic and ask a question. Everyone is an expert on something, you just need to listen and ask specific questions.
If in doubt, talk about what you’re passion about, something you know. I attend more events than I want to admit and I never tire of hearing someone tell me about something they love doing.
Finally, my secret weapon. My memory teaser.
On the way home from events I type the names and one distinguishing characteristic of the people I’d met into the notes page on my phone. Once the list is complete, I email it to myself and then print a hardcopy when I get home. The printed sheet gets filed into a folder and the next time I’m invited to a similar event, I review my notes. I warned you. No photographic memory. Just detailed notes. Old school.