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The (St)Art of Public Speaking: How to Give and Receive Compliments5 min read

Some people are innately good at public speaking, but the rest of us, unfortunately, have to work at it. It has never been something I’ve felt proficient in, and thanks to some free time during the pandemic, it’s a skill I’m trying to develop. From reading books, to listening to podcasts, and sometimes talking to myself (all in the name of practice of course), I am sharing some things I learn in this series for The Oppy.


I know what you’re thinking… “What do compliments have to do with public speaking?” And you’re right, it doesn’t have anything  to do with formally presenting, but the art of being able to effectively give and receive compliments is key in compelling communication. 

Learning how to give a good compliment is a great tool to have. It can open doors and build connections. Plus, there’s that serotonin effect – it feels good to give and receive compliments. It boosts the recipient’s self-esteem, bolsters confidence, and reinforces positive behavior. Yes, I do realize it sounds like I’m talking about training dogs, but the truth is compliments are motivating, even if they feel undeserved. The other day I was out running and another runner yelled at me, “you’re doing great!” How could he possibly know that? I could have been running for 2 minutes or an hour. Despite this logic, the positive feedback got my endorphins flowing. I smiled, realized that he couldn’t see me smiling under my mask, so I frantically waved as I ran by him. Then I thought to myself, “You know what? Let’s make this hill day,” and took to the cross country trails. I felt great, all because one stranger gave me a compliment. 

Despite that terrible example, a successful compliment should be sincere. Overcompensating can lead to complimenting to fill silences, and trust me, people can tell. The expression, “flattery gets you nowhere,” exists for a reason. It destroys credibility. However, finding value in people’s work or efforts is not difficult if you’re actively looking for their strengths and value. We all bring something to the table. Once you get into the habit of complimenting, it becomes common practice to look for the positive in others. And when we see the value in others, we can also see it in ourselves. 

Compliments should be specific and genuine. Making this common practice leads to stronger and deeper bonds with others, personally and professionally. Employees want to work harder to gain appreciation from their bosses. Friends feel loved and valued. Generally, people who are complimented feel empowered. But again, don’t overdo it. I am saying all this as someone who is not a “words of affirmation” person (at least, I don’t consider myself one). Personally, my favorite part of a compliment is the kindness that comes with it. 

Now, let’s talk about professional compliments. We all got into Stern. I know we all realize that not all compliments, however genuine they may be, are appropriate comments in the workplace. I’m sure many of my female colleagues would attest to how uncomfortable a compliment about appearance can make us feel in a professional setting. The discomfort is not only due to not knowing how to respond, but it also makes us question how much our male coworkers value us professionally. The same holds true for us, ladies. There shouldn’t be double standards. I won’t go down a rabbit hole on this one, but it is something to be wary of. 

Praise people even when things didn’t work out as planned – that’s when they need it most. Acknowledge and appreciate others for taking risks because that can be as important as success. After all, “it’s all about the journey, not the outcome,” according to Carl Lewis. Lastly, pass on compliments that you’ve heard others saying about the person, to the person. You don’t have to give names if you don’t want to, but there is power in numbers.

The tricky part for many of us is accepting compliments. People have a hard time accepting compliments for many reasons. It could be due to not wanting to seem conceited, not knowing how to respond, or having underlying low self-esteem. These reasons lead us to passively rejecting positive feedback – by ignoring the compliment, deflecting it, or reflecting it with a compliment in return. Another form of rejection, and my personal M.O., is denial or a sarcastic response. “Sure, it was a great presentation. Did you not see me turning pink, profusely sweating, and my legs shaking?!” Those are actual words that have come out of mouth in response to positive feedback after a class presentation, but to be fair, it was all true. The secret, folks, is to wear black – it hides the sweat and trembles and black goes with all shades of pink.

All joking aside, the goal is to respond to a compliment graciously. When you downplay your skills and abilities, you seem awkward, underconfident, or even strange (this girl, right here) depending on your response. Our own self-talk can be our worst enemy. Reflect on where the discomfort is coming from. Do you think the person is being disingenuous, do you not believe them, or do you not want to appear conceited? Regardless of why, your visceral reaction to a compliment can make the giver also feel uncomfortable. You questioned their judgement and created a negative experience. Shame on you. (Kidding.)

Fortunately, there is an art to making the compliment-giver feel good, too. Look the person in the eye. Smile, listen, and don’t interrupt. Reflect on the compliment. When the person is finished speaking, all you have to say is “thank you!” No “ifs, ands, or buts.” Accepting compliments is a win-win. It grows your self-esteem and makes the giver feel good, too. This is important both professionally and personally. As I mentioned, compelling communication is key, and a good compliment can never be overrated. 

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