Although most of my writing has to do with learning and improving yourself, today I thought I’d go off onto a more practical path and explore how memory can help you in business. I’m generally hesitant to write about business or anything approaching marketing because A) most of the material I’ve come across in those areas makes me want to ralph, and B) it’s an incredibly saturated space. But I’ve noticed that none of the so-called “gurus” seem to focus on mixing memory and business, and I know I can deliver value to you, dear reader, because of my expertise.

Being Memorable

Most of what you see on a day-to-day basis is not stored in memory. To some, this is a terrible anti-feature of the brain - they want to remember everything and it seems cruel that they’re naturally incapable of doing so. But the truth is that our ability to focus primarily on whatever is perceived as important (usually called salience in the scientific literature) is one of our brain’s greatest strengths. It allows us to save space and mental energy and use it on things that actually matter to us.

Would you really want to remember every single breakfast you’ve ever eaten? Do you think you’d get much value out of those memories? Or, to be a bit more graphic (but realistic), would you want crystal clear images of every bowel movement you’ve ever seen? These are (fortunately) bundled up into generalizations, such as “I eat breakfast most days” or “I use the bathroom at least once a day.” You do remember specific breakfasts if they’re somehow very different than your normal morning meal, such as that time you ate eggs and bacon at the White House.

This is an extremely efficient process that we should all be thankful for. Unfortunately, it can work against you in the world of business, particularly when you’re networking.

For one, people aren’t really that interested in others who they see as “vanilla.” It’s an odd mix of the memory functions I described above and people’s tendency to favor novelty. Even if someone meets you and thinks favorably of you, if you don’t present something unique and interesting to the people you meet, you will most likely be forgotten. Have you ever met someone at an event, had a great conversation with them, then run into them later only to have the other person forget your name? It might be that they’re just a jerk, but the more likely explanation is that you simply didn’t provide anything salient for them to remember.

The only way to get around this problem is to do something that will force people’s memories to take note of you - even if they don’t particularly like you. I’ve experimented with a variety of different methods with varying degrees of success. One that worked well was getting playing card business cards printed. They weren’t just shaped like playing cards, they were made out of high-end French playing card paper and felt exactly like the kinds of cards you handle in casinos. People loved these things and more than a few times I had people remember who I was the next time I saw them specifically because of the cards.

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Although I never met him, a friend of mine told me about a guy here in San Diego who used to walk around networking events with a pineapple. He didn’t have to do much in order to get people’s attention - within moments of seeing him, people were instantly curious about why he was carrying this fruit around. It turns out that he did it for that very purpose: getting people to talk to him. The pineapple didn’t carry any sort of meaning, but it turned him into an extremely memorable person. Even if someone doesn’t remember his name, the fact that he’s the “pineapple guy” is all it takes.

Bottom line: don’t be another vanilla person in the crowd, dispensing business cards and talking about how you can “serve” others. These sorts of techniques are trotted out over and over again in books by networking “gurus”, but because they’re so popular people who use them are more likely to be forgotten. Whether you use an outrageous prop like a pineapple or not, just make sure you leave some kind of unique impression on the minds of the people you meet.

Remembering Names and Faces

That’s all well and good for getting other people to remember you, but equally (if not more) important is possessing the capability to remember the people you meet. Since most people won’t take steps to make themselves salient to you (that skill can be your secret weapon), you need to find ways to remember them anyway. In order to do this, you need to take advantage of how your brain stores meaningful concepts - a process called encoding.

The first step is to make an effort to encode the person’s name and associate it with their face and any prominent bodily features. For example, I recently met a guy named Logan who had very large sideburns. As a 90s kid, it was easy for me to encode his name and face because Wolverine (whose “real” name is Logan) also has very large sideburns. Once you have that information, you need to focus for 5-10 seconds on whatever construct you’ve created mentally. If you can repeat their name at least a few times.

I’m not suggesting that you stare at this new person and repeat their name mindlessly like a psychopath. Rather, you should kill two birds with one stone here and ask questions that incorporate their name. You might be able to pick up more pertinent information that you can use in the encoding process, and, even if you don’t, you’ll start encoding anyway.

For example, if you met someone named Jane, you should ask questions in this format:

Nice to meet you, Jane. Where are you from?” “Very interesting, Jane. Do you like to travel?

This method is extremely effective not only because you’re encoding their information internally, but also because people love to talk about themselves. In a way, you’re endearing yourself to them by showing interest, which most people (in my own anecdotal experience) aren’t willing to do in any sort of genuine fashion. Behaving that way will increase the chances that others will encode memories of you, although it should be combined with other salient cues.

Bottom line: Please don’t be one of those people who says “Oh, I’m terrible at remembering names/faces/anything.” Your memory isn’t bad, you’re mostly just not making the effort to remember or, more likely, you don’t know how to do it correctly. Making the effort to understand and implement a system for remembering faces can make a tremendous difference in your ability to network with others.

Broaden Your Horizons

Business is, for the most part, built on relationships. Skills and intelligence help, but mostly it’s how well you can navigate social situations and build lasting connections with others. In order to build said connections, it’s crucial that you have as many avenues for relating to others as possible. People prefer to do business with those who they perceive as similar, and the more you’ve explored what the world has to offer, you easier it is to create that perception.

The best way to do this is to expose yourself to subjects that are far outside of your own experience, and to make a point of remembering information that could open up opportunities for you to relate to others.

For example, I make a point of learning about other countries, particularly data points like capitals, population stats and geography. To an outside observer this might seem like mindless rote memorization (to be fair, that is true to a small degree), but it’s incredible how often this works in my favor. Mostly I’ve chosen random countries to learn about, with a few exceptions (such as Iceland, which I wanted to learn about because I knew I would be traveling there). For example, I put cards into my Anki deck about Morocco without really having a reason to. Oddly enough, I’ve met several people from Morocco here in San Diego and, upon demonstrating that I knew who their ruler is (Mohammed VI) or what the capital is (Ribat), rapport is instantly created.

I also found that many cab drivers in my area are from East Africa, and I made a point of learning a bit about countries like Ethiopia. Upon asking one driver if he was from Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia), a huge smile came across his face and he thanked me for knowing something about his beloved home country.

You will also want to read books that aren’t just related to whatever it is you’re currently interested in. I’ve written about the benefits of broad reading before, but from a business perspective it is crucial. I personally see this as the primary demarcation between a quality businessperson and a subpar one. Here’s why:

  1. Just like the geography bits I talked about before, it opens you up to more social opportunity. If all you know is what you’ve experienced, you will almost certainly miss out on people who could end up being great friends and/or business connections. Reading books about things you haven’t seen for yourself allows you to have at least topical conversations about topics that interest other people, which can lead to more meaningful connections later.

  2. Looking outside of your current area of expertise means you can see and think about different opportunities you might not have thought about before. People who end up doing what really makes them happy in life rarely reach that point by working in a single job their entire lives. No, they generally explore other industries and, if they’re really serious about their own happiness, read about things they’ve never even considered.

Bottom line: The world is rich with diversity, and you won’t be able to see all of it yourself. Knowing this, you can still make your overall life better by exploring the world through seeing and reading as much as you can. Being a more valuable business connection is just a pleasant side effect.

Use a System

You can do these things without having a good memory system in place, but you’ll get sub-optimal results. Make a point of downloading Anki and setting up your flashcards for information that can be useful to you in a business setting. If you’re interested in the finer points of how to do this, check out my book, The Learning Factory. The book includes some examples that you can use directly from this post, including a note type for remembering names and faces.

Even if you decide to ignore my advice about using flashcards, make an effort to create some kind of internal process for encoding information about the people you meet. Think ahead of time about what you’ll do upon meeting new people and the steps you’ll take to make yourself stand out. Just making this sort of effort will put you head and shoulders above other people who are out there “networking” using the same tired old techniques.