The Compliment Bomb

Everybody knows that compliments help you influence others, but unfortunately, most people are doing it wrong.

Nearly every self help book and psychology primer gushes over how much flattery can increase your likability, and likability in turn increases your persuasive influence.

Years ago, I did an activity in the classroom that encouraged those in attendance to anonymously compliment others. People liked it so much that I created a web app to help people do the same thing over the internet.

After reading many public compliments that people posted using my tool, I came to a disheartening realization: most people are really bad at compliments. I immediately set out researching the secrets to effective compliments.

Why Compliments?

Robert_B_Cialdini_-_Influence_-_The_Psychology_of_PersuasionIn Dr. Robert Cialdini’s groundbreaking book “Influence,” he identifies likability as one of his 6 powerful influencers. In fact, according to the research he cites, complimenting others can give you more influence–even if it’s not true–and even if the recipient knows it’s not true.

If you’re the self improvement type, you’re probably also familiar with the name Dale Carnegie. In the early twentieth century, Carnegie essentially started the entire public speaking training industry. If I’m being honest, very few trainers since have improved on his advice.

carnegieCarnegie is best knows for his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” His book is still in print and has sold over 30 million copies. If you haven’t read it, I can summarize it in one sentence: compliment people. His insights have been the basis for pretty much the entire self help industry over the last 80 years.

Unfortunately, you might be doing it wrong!

I thought this was a public speaking blog

lecturnYes, this is a presentation skills and public speaking blog, or more accurately a communication skills blog. My passion is public speaking and group communication, but the same principles apply.

Whether one-on-one or to a large group, the principle of building the listener’s self worth increases your likability and influence. You just apply the principle differently in a group presentation setting.

In my SpeechDeck public speaking skills system I call this principle “Empower the Individual.”

When public speaking to an audience of 200 you can’t compliment every individual one at a time. You don’t have to. Compliment one individual, and it influences the whole audience.

Bill Bixby: NBC’s The Magician

You know how a magician will invite a member of the audience on stage to verify his equipment. The magician knows that every other member of the audience trusts their in-group peers more than they trust the illusionist.

When an INDIVIDUAL from the audience group verifies the equipment on stage, every other member of the audience group increases their trust vicariously through the one volunteer.

Likewise, when a speaker compliments an INDIVIDUAL from the audience, every other member of the audience group attributes more likability to the speaker vicariously through the one compliment recipient. Do it right and you automatically gain more influence over everyone in your audience.

Compliments Done Right

Of course there are two sides to every coin. Compliments can backfire. Studies have shown potential caveats in several situations:

  • When you overdo it
  • When you establish a superior/inferior relationship
  • When the recipient has very low self esteem
  • When the recipient feels manipulated
  • When you embarrass the recipient

Other than drawing unwanted attention to someone that embarrasses or “disempowers” them, you can usually ignore most of those exceptions in a group setting. Few people error on the side of too much positivity and empowerment.

So how do you do it right? Here are 8 rules:

1. Compliment People, NOT Things

network-782707_640Nice haircut.

Great. I’ll tell my barber/stylist.

I love your shoes.

Louis Vuitton will be thrilled.

Don’t compliment my clothes, my hair, my words, my friends, my looks, or any THING. Compliment ME.

YOU really know how to make your hair to look great!

It’s not about the shoes:

Wow. Look at those shoes. YOU have a great sense of style!

2. Be Specific

Great comment. Thank you.

I’ll bet you say that to everybody. At least you could. There is nothing in that “compliment” that makes it unique to the recipient.

Your idea about “_____,” was insightful. Thank you.

Fill in the blank with the exact words they used in their comment. That’s specificity.

Don’t tell her that her hair looks great. Be specific and tell her WHY her hair looks great.

The way you “twisted the hair off to one side” looks fantastic!

3. It’s not about you (the giver)

It’s shocking how many compliments focus on the giver and not the receiver.

I think you’re beautiful.

You think it? So I’m not really beautiful to everyone, but YOU think it.

I love the way you always turn in your work on time.

Bad. Bad compliment. Bad compliment! In other words, “I only care about you if it helps me.” Lose the “I”  whenever possible.

You always turn your work in on time. Thank you.

Removing yourself can be difficult if not impossible, so place yourself in the subordinate role:

Without your generosity, I couldn’t …

Second best, place yourself in the subordinate grammatical clause. Not “I think you have a great smile,” but:

Your smile is so great that I can’t help feel better.

Industrial_and_Financial_Systems_2009_logo.svg4. Be Unique

How many times does a supermodel hear “you’re so hot!”?

How many times does a jokester hear “you’re so funny!”?

How many times does an athlete hear “you’re so talented!”?

How many times have you heard the same “you’re so ____!”?

Try complimenting something no one has ever complimented before:

You’re so good at starting conversations …


You have incredible courage to try new things, even when you have doubts.

5. Target real desires

People don’t want to be complimented about thinks they don’t think are true. Unless the person has low self-esteem, it can still work, but people prefer hearing what they WANT to hear.

DON’T necessarily compliment the food from someone who isn’t trying to impress you with the food. DO notice the waistline of someone you know is on a diet!

I know it’s annoying when someone is fishing for compliments. It’s okay. Let them catch something.

6. Don’t qualify

You smell great today.

… but most days I wish you would remember to bathe. The qualification of “today” is completely unnecessary and can be misinterpreted.

That shirt looks great on you, it hides your tan lines.

Lose the qualification. Just give the compliment and end it, no ifs, ands, or buts.

You’re a great driver, for a woman.

Say that “compliment,” and you better hope the same woman is also great at “not being offended.” If only we could win influence points for insults, we’d all be rich.

7. Have fun

Compliments should be personal. If you are scripting your words you will say something that sounds completely unnatural:

You represent our company with the utmost respect and proper decorum.

Yes, you will actually sound like that if you script your compliments. Just have fun and be natural:

When you held your cool in front of that client it was so funny I almost peed myself.

8. Be honest


Okay, let’s be honest. Lots and lots of insincere people use flattery to manipulate you. On the first day of manipulation 101 they teach flattery.

If you want to be insincere, it technically still works, but guess what? When you’re insincere you have to worry about all the potential ramifications of being caught in a lie. As Abraham Lincoln famously said:

No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.

With a little practice there is always something that you can compliment sincerely. Make the compliment real and you don’t have to worry about the potential backfire.

The Bomb

Like any good incendiary device, a compliment has tremendous potential for destruction:

It destroys self-doubt.
It destroys objections.
It destroys inhibitions.
It destroys suspicion.
It destroys antagonism.
It destroys distance.
It destroys uncooperativeness.
It destroys apathy.
It destroys egotism.
It destroys overthinking.
It destroys anxiety.

It’s ‘da Bomb.

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