How To Be The Most Memorable Person In The Room

Photo: Shutterstock/REX
The best conversations aren’t about what you say, they are about what you hear.
Yet, as much as we hate to admit it, we love to talk about ourselves. In fact, humans dedicate 30 to 40% of their verbal output solely to self-disclosure. This number balloons to 80% on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. And when people talk about themselves, it pays to be interested. Not just feigning interest, mind you — genuinely interested.
Harvard neuroscientists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell found that something changes in our brain when we talk about ourselves. Activity increases in the brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system. Keyword: dopamine. Talking about ourselves gives us pleasure.
So to leave a positive impression, does this mean we should all go around being mostly silent during our interactions? Definitely no. Being interested is only the first piece of the puzzle.
As a human behaviour investigator, I study the hidden forces that drive our behaviour patterns in my lab – the Science of People. Over the past decade, I’ve developed shortcuts, formulas, and blueprints for getting along with anyone.
Below are the three skills I’ve found that will have you leaving any social interaction as the most memorable person in the room.
I have a moderate obsession with office supplies. Nothing gets me going like a fresh pack of snazzy pens, a bunch of little notebooks, and a colourful array of sticky tabs. I remember inheriting my first bright yellow highlighter from my older brother – and by inherited, I do mean stolen from his backpack.
It was such a game-changer! That little stick of brightness helped me learn faster, remember more and emphasise important points. The best communicators do the exact same thing – they serve as conversational highlighters. They listen to learn more about a person, to remember what was said and then find the important points to act upon.
It’s time to hack the art – and science – of listening. You can do this by being a highlighter: Bring out the best in people by highlighting their strengths. When you know what to listen for, you know exactly how to respond.
Highlighting is also a way of practising more refreshing and honest interactions. Highlighting is not about sugar-coating, it’s not about brown-nosing, and it’s not about sucking up. It’s about honouring what you truly find noteworthy and getting real conversations started.
Emily McDowell has made an entire business out of speaking truth by highlighting people. And it happened by accident. In 2012, Emily had an idea for a different kind of Valentine’s Day card. She wanted to help the people on Valentine’s Day who are dating but not officially in a relationship.
So she printed up 100 copies of this card at a local printer and put it up on Etsy in late January 2013. She called it “The Awkward Dating Card”.
Talk about a conversation-sparker! Her card’s raw honesty and humour took the internet by storm. Three months later, she got an order from Urban Outfitters for 96,000 cards. Emily started creating more honest posters, pins, tote bags, and paper products that help highlight anyone who receives them.
She has ridiculously candid birthday cards that say, “Thinking about you is like remembering I have ice cream in the freezer.”
I was turned onto Emily’s amazing highlighting approach when someone handed me a card that said, “I notice how awesome you are.” It made my day! I then got myself a pack of McDowell’s cards to hand out that say, “I love the shit out of you” and “You don’t suck.”
McDowell’s cards are powerful because they give both compliments and truth. Anyone can be a Hallmark card – doling out bland flattery and boring cliches. But highlighting is about more than just giving regular praise. Like Emily McDowell does with her cards, it is about truly expecting the best from people and helping everyone in your life perform, act, and show up as the best, most honest version of themselves.
Photo: Shutterstock/REX
The Pygmalion Effect
There is a famous Greek myth about the sculptor Pygmalion. According to legend, Pygmalion used a large piece of ivory to carve his vision of the ideal woman. His statue was so beautiful and realistic that he fell in love with it. Embarrassed and ashamed to admit his desires, Pygmalion made offerings to the love goddess Aphrodite. At her altar, he secretly prayed to meet a woman who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.”
When Pygmalion got back to his studio, he planted a soft kiss on the statue. To his surprise, he found the ivory lips warm. When he kissed her again, the statue came to life. Pygmalion then married the woman of his own creation.
The Pygmalion myth is about the self-fulfilling power of expectation. Pygmalion created a blueprint of what he wanted and then it came to life.
In other words, great expectations are met with greatness. Psychologists have found that this idea is no myth. This phenomenon is called the Pygmalion effect.
One study found that when voters were told they were more “politically active” than their peers (even if they were actually chosen at random), they had a 15% higher turnout rate than the control group. When donors are told that they are above-average givers (even if they are not), they in turn donate more to become above-average givers. When hotel maids are told that they have a high-intensity, calorie-burning job, they in turn burn more calories. When a computer gives automated compliments to students, those students perform better on tasks – even when students know those compliments are automated.
Positive Labels
Humans love to be given positive labels. They improve our self-image and gently push us to be better versions of ourselves. So as you use conversation-sparkers and see what unexpected directions they lead you in, allow yourself to be impressed by the person across from you. Listen for their eloquent ideas. Find ways to emphasise their strengths. Celebrate their excitement.
Take the rather silly example of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series. At the beginning of each school year, Hogwarts students are sorted into different houses by a magical hat that reads their minds, taking full measure of their hidden skills. Each house is known for different strengths, and as they move to the higher grades, students’ defining characteristics become more and more pronounced. Students in Slytherin tend to be sly, savvy, and interested in the dark arts, whereas those in Hufflepuff often end up in care-taking magical jobs like herbology and care of magical creatures. For better or for worse, the clearer the labels we’re given, the more we embody them.
Here are some examples you could use:
“You know everyone – you must be a great networker!”
“I’m amazed by your dedication to this organisation – they are lucky to have you.”
“You are so knowledgeable in this subject – thank goodness you are here.”
Exponential Excitement
Another way of highlighting is to celebrate the victories of others as if they were your own. Good feelings multiply around other good feelings, and divide when they are not matched. When you see someone who is proud, excited or passionate, mirror and match it. This associates you with their feelings of pleasure.
You can say something simple:
“I am so thrilled for you!”
“How wonderful that must be!”
“That is just the best news, congrats!”
When I see something – anything – that’s awesome, I always take the opportunity to highlight. I tell my barista his latte art is gorgeous. I gush over my friends’ new haircuts. I send out postcards telling people they’re ballers. Yes, really.
Photo: Shutterstock/REX
Want to know one of the biggest missed opportunities in social situations? Introductions. I get some version of this email multiple times per week:
Hey Vanessa – I wanted to intro you to Dave. Dave, here is that intro you were asking for. Hope you two connect.
Boring! I have no idea who he is or why I should know him. The same thing happens at networking events, client meetings, and conferences. I am almost always introduced to someone in the most boring, generic way possible:
Vanessa, meet John; John, meet Vanessa.
This is a waste of an opportunity! Seize introductions as the perfect way to highlight people. Even if you have only known them for a few minutes, you can find something to rave about.
“Vanessa, meet Dave. He is killing it in the software industry and just had a hugely successful launch.”
“Joe, meet Sue. She is an incredible painter and one of the most talented artists I know.”
“Kirk, let me introduce you to Annie. We just met and she is telling me the most fascinating story of her trip to South Africa.”
You can even do this when you’re the one introducing yourself:
“It’s so nice to meet you! I have heard that you have an incredible blog. Please tell me all about how you got all of your success.”
“Great to know you, a friend of John is a friend of mine. He always knows the most interesting people.”
“It’s a pleasure! Your name tag says you work at Ken’s Bakery – they are my favourite pizza in town! Have you always been a pizza aficionado?”
Why are raving introductions so powerful? First, you give people positive labels right at the start. Second, you tee up a great conversation and possible discussion topics for the people involved. Third, you get people talking about themselves – what they do and who they are, which produces dopamine. Yes, a raving introduction is ALSO a conversational spark. Boom: win-win-win.
Do you know what the opposite of the Pygmalion effect is? The Golem effect.
The Golem effect is when low expectations lead to poor performance. Major Wilburn Schrank decided to test the Golem effect on incoming United States Air Force freshmen. Schrank randomly assigned labels to a group of 100 enlisted airmen at the US Air Force Academy Preparatory School. They were given one of five different made-up “ability levels”. The US military is all about labels, rank and position, so Schrank wanted to know if these labels have any effect on academic performance. Sure enough, for all of the data sets, the airmen who received the worst labels also performed the worst.
The Golem effect can have devastating consequences across the board. Dr. Brian McNatt found that the Golem effect is especially prevalent in the workplace. Think of bosses who pick favourites. Here’s what happens:
Jeff is the boss. He hires a new sales associate from his alma mater, XYZ University. He takes her under his wing, they grab lunch more often, he gives her the best assignments. After all, Jeff thinks anyone from his alma mater has the best possible education, and he wants his fellow alumni to succeed. She benefits from the Pygmalion effect. Jeff expects the best from her and she performs at her best. Other employees see this favouritism and feel left out. One particular manager, Ken, went to ABC University, XYZ’s rival. Jeff is constantly ribbing Ken – jokingly, of course. Ken doesn’t get invited to watch games at the boss’s house on weekends. Jeff teases Ken for not being able to get into XYZ – Ken knows he’s kidding, but feels the sting anyway.
Hallway chit-chat and water-cooler conversations matter. Expecting the best is not just important for new people, but also to build up the existing people in your life. What are you saying about and to your colleagues?
Being a highlighter is about constantly searching for the good in people. When you tell people they are good, they become better. When you search for what’s good, you feel great.
We remember people who make us feel good and who make us want to be the best version of ourselves. You can optimise an interaction by expecting optimal outcomes. Elevate people by hacking listening, highlighting, and expecting the best in those around you. Being a highlighter helps you be the highlight.
Vanessa Van Edwards is Lead Investigator at the Science of People – a human behaviour research lab. As a published author and speaker she runs original research experiments on topics such as the science of attraction, human lie detection, body language hacks, and other people skills at Her latest book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People (published by Portfolio Penguin) was chosen as one of Apple’s Most Anticipated Books of 2017.

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