How to Give Compliments That Mean Something

Note: This is a guest post from Chris Birk of Write Short Live Long
Carefully chosen words are among the most disposable items in today’s throwaway society.
That’s helped to make compliments ”” real, meaningful words of praise ”” an increasingly elusive treasure. The reality is that the art of giving meaningful compliments has become a dying one.
Part of it is political correctness. Part of it lies in the faceless, informal ways we’re connected to one another through technology.
It’s not that we’ve become cold and unfeeling. Most of us do issue compliments ”” to co-workers, loved ones and even sometimes strangers. But they tend to ring hollow, failing to truly connect with and touch the recipient.
And most of us want to give meaningful compliments that leave an impression. Often it’s simply a matter of simplicity and intent. We rush our words or worse ”” rehearse them ”” instead of allowing the compliment to organically emerge.
To help revive this dying art, here are five ways to help you give meaningful compliments:

1. Be Specific
Detail is the lifeblood of good writing. It’s also the heart of a great compliment. Hone in on a specific achievement or aspect and focus your words on that. A vague, generalized comment that can be recycled throughout the day ”” “You have beautiful eyes” or “Great presentation to the board” ”” lacks real meaning because of its cookie-cutter nature.
That man or woman gets a flimsy compliment about their eyes a few times a week. Instead, seize on a sliver that indicates you paid attention or that the recipient’s presence or actions have made a meaningful impact on you. It’s not just that she gave a great presentation ”” it’s that this particular moment proved so captivating.
Specific compliments have lasting power. So do those that favor character over objects or outward appearance. They indicate that you’ve truly taken stock of a person and their attributes and, in turn, compressed those thoughts into a value judgment.
2. Be Genuine
Meaning what you say is, well, inherent to a meaningful compliment. With a little skill you can make a platitude seem specific enough to mollify the recipient. Despite your knack for false sincerity, most people can tell when your words aren’t genuine. That’s why you shouldn’t force a compliment because it somehow seems like the time or place to offer one.
Sincerity is a byproduct of genuine belief or emotion. To toss up a compliment because of social convention or circumstance is to speak without real meaning. Writing about the art of compliments for Esquire magazine, Tom Chiarella summed it up perfectly: “If a worthwhile compliment needs anything, it is the weight of realization behind it.”
3. Be Patient
Giving the perfect compliment is also about waiting for the perfect moment. One thing you should avoid is trying to manufacture that moment ”” that’s inherently selfish and makes the giving more about you than the recipient. Flattery and puffery are impatient and have the giver’s best interests at heart. At the same time, waiting too long can mean the compliment loses its timeliness. Strive to strike a balance, focusing on the needs and timing of the recipient.
4. Be Succinct
It’s easy to start rambling when you say something nice about someone. Don’t linger around looking for a “thank you” or feel the need to repeat yourself or venture beyond the confines of the compliment. This is especially true if you’re moved to compliment a stranger. Breeze in, offer your heartfelt words and jump right back into life ongoing.
5. Be Yourself
You don’t need to assume some new persona to start dishing out compliments to co-workers and folks off the street. Possessing a degree of self-confidence is key to delivering meaningful compliments. Learning how to give these types of compliments will also make you a better ”” and more appreciative ­”” recipient when the time comes to receive them.
Chris Birk works with, a unique firm that provides angel investment and online marketing expertise to emerging companies. A former newspaper and magazine writer, he teaches journalism and media writing at a private Midwestern university. His personal blog, Write Short Live Long, will be launching soon.
Photo by Jerry


  1. I think being genuine with out compliments is something a lot of us struggle with, me especially. It’s easy to give a general compliment but finding something specific is beautiful and shows attention to detail.
    If you have a negative bunch of friends it can show their negativity up too to come out of nowhere with a compliment.

  2. Hey Chris and Donald,
    I totally agree with being specific. There’s a huge difference between saying “Great Job!” and pointing out exactly *where* someone did a great job.

  3. Nice post. Being specific/genuine is very important – I can always see the difference when done correctly of how a person reacts. If done right, they glow. 🙂

  4. I was talking about this with a good friend the other day. We both realized that compliments generally tend to loose their meaning because they’re too general and used out of courtesy. It’s a true art to give a genuine compliment and make it seem genuine.

  5. Great post! Sometimes little things in life such as receiving compliments go a long way, and ensuring that it’s done properly should be on everyone’s mind. Thanks for the valuable reminder.

  6. @Richard: I struggle with it, too. It’s a study in focus and sincere attention, which is always so diverted these days.
    @Sid: Most definitely. It’s so easy to hand out those meaningless “atta boys” today. I think they’re as transparent to the recipient as they are fleeting to the giver.
    @Craig: I totally agree. There’s just something about being genuine and sincere that shines through.
    @Eduard: It certainly is a true art — and a dying one at that, I would argue. I think we’re still civil and bent toward social courtesy, but those aren’t the same things as being truly complimentary.

  7. I think that learning how to receive a compliment is just as important. There are many times that I compliment someone and they brush it off by saying things like, “I don’t deserve it” or deflecting it with things like, “I was just lucky”. Something simple like just saying thanks would be better.

  8. Great post Chris! I agree that genuine compliments have more power. I loved how you broke down the fact that details ring more powerful than a generalized compliment. That is so true.
    Sometimes I see something that I like and although I do compliment, it doesn’t go over as well because I try to rush it. This reminds me to be patient issue the compliment, without and agenda, and move back on with life.
    Thanks for sharing!!

  9. Fantastic Post.
    As other readers said, Giving (right) compliments makes the receiver glow and as a result it creates a genuineness and willingness in the receiver to undergo a thinking process of improving themselves. The receiver and giver attune with each other authentically.
    Giving compliment is more about being humane and “get connected” and it is not a mere ritual.
    Once again, thanks for sharing your wisdom and reinforcing the importance that we miss in daily lives

  10. I love this post listing empowering ways to give a compliment! You hit all the key components. Being open and honest while giving a specific “atta boy” is so much more heart-felt than just a plain “thank you, you did a great job.”
    Too many people do not take the time to really connect with others and see their true worth.
    Thanks for sharing these tips,

  11. great post…
    love it

  12. Meaningful compliments truly are something special. We all tend to get easily wrapped up in the simple, cookie cutter, colloquial social responses in day to day life.. “How are you?” “Fine thanks and you?” “Good thanks” .. and so on.
    Sometimes, when you throw in a genuine compliment, it totally takes the other person off their normal rhythm. When you take notice of that moment of genuine happiness, it’s a great feeling.

  13. Love this.
    I’d also like to add that ACCEPTING complements is important too. So often when we are complemented we “pooh pooh” it. Accepting a complement from someone is similar to graciously accepting a gift. Say “thank you” and then marinate in the good feelings the complement was meant to inspire.
    🙂 Susan

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