How to Give a Compliment: Tips for Maximum Impact

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fine Art of Small Talk" by Debra Fine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever wanted to compliment someone but felt too awkward to do it? What are the benefits of giving compliments?

According to Debra Fine, the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, giving compliments actually has many benefits—they can break the ice, help establish rapport, and make people feel appreciated. She defines two types of compliments: deep and shallow.

Here is how to give a compliment, according to Debra Fine.

The 3 Categories of Compliments

Sometimes, we avoid giving compliments because we’re afraid of being awkward or creepy, but in most cases, we’re underestimating the positive impact of sharing them. Compliments can serve as icebreakers. They improve our mood and reduce our stress levels. They even activate the same reward circuit in our brains as receiving a financial reward. In her book The Fine Art of Small Talk, Debra Fine shares some tips on how to give a compliment.

Fine suggests three main categories of compliments to draw on:

  1. How they look: Their fashion sense, accessories, or skillfully applied makeup
  2. Things they own: Their home or car, and anything on display, like photos and diplomas
  3. The way they act: How organized they are in meetings, how brave they were to change careers

2 Kinds of Compliment

While Fine suggests that there are three types of compliment, others argue that there are two, much broader types: superficial and deep. Fine doesn’t mention these two categories, so here’s what they are, how they work, and how they correspond to Fine’s types of compliment:

Superficial compliments, which are generally about “things” like objects and body parts, make great icebreakers. You can compliment someone’s shirt, hairstyle, or other worldly possessions without knowing anything about them. Superficial compliments are nice to hear, but at our core, we prefer to be appreciated for who we are, rather than what we have, so their impact is limited.

Examples of superficial compliments include, “I love the way you’ve laid out your living room! It feels so airy and comforting; you must have put a lot of thought into it.” or, “Dude, nice shirt!”
Fine’s first two categories—compliments about the way people look or the things they own—are “superficial” compliments. 

In contrast, deep compliments, which are about behaviors, traits, or accomplishments, are difficult to give strangers. They focus on the receiver’s personality or their skills and achievements—so until your conversational partner gives you something to praise, you can’t craft one. A genuine deep compliment can be powerfully touching and memorable, because you’re lauding the person, not just their possessions. In giving a deep compliment, you highlight something the other person can feel truly proud of; after all, a laudable achievement likely took hard, focused work.

An example of a deep compliment is, “I was impressed by your presentation; you’ve taught me why it’s critical that I dedicate my time to supporting the needs of my staff, and I appreciate the bravery it took to bring that to the board’s attention.”

Fine’s third category—compliments about the way people act—falls under the banner of “deep” compliments. 
In either case, when you give a compliment, follow these rules to maximize its impact:

  • Be honest; don’t exaggerate, or you’ll seem disingenuous.
  • Be specific about which object, trait, or accomplishment you’re praising.
  • Be descriptive; clearly state what you like or find impressive about it and why.
  • Be genuine; deliver your compliment with warmth and conviction.
How to Give a Compliment: Tips for Maximum Impact

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Fine Art of Small Talk summary:

  • Why we need small talk and why we shouldn't avoid it
  • How to appear confident and engaging in any context
  • How to break the ice with strangers and keep the conversation going

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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