Once of my most valuable life skills I learned by accident. I was young – around five or six – and my parents had taped a recent television special featuring the Smothers Brothers with the Boston Pops Orchestra. In the opening number, Tom predictably flubs the lyrics and Dick exasperatedly says, “That was just great, beautiful, congratulations. Heck of a way to start the show.”
Tom takes this literally and thanks his brother for the compliment. He even segues into a speech about how often people forget to give compliments, and that his brother gave him one was truly a wonderful thing.
Did I mention I was around five? I knew Dick was being sarcastic, but I didn’t realize Tom was joking too. I took the speech to heart, and since then have always made a point of giving out compliments where I can. It’s a good thing, too – when you’re an editor, you’re usually pointing out what’s wrong with a piece, and being able to balance that out with compliments is utterly crucial if you want repeat business!
Compliments aren’t just for making people happy, though. They are also key to good sales writing.
Business writing almost always involves some amount of salesmanship. Unfortunately, many of the people tasked with this writing don’t consider themselves good at sales. Afraid of sounding phony or just not knowing what the client wants to hear, these writers often resort to listing product features or restating proposal prompts. The result is dry and unclear as to how their product or service is a better fit for the client than competitors’. How to avoid this? Compliments.
Everyone knows how to give a compliment because everyone likes to receive compliments. If you just built a tricky IKEA desk, you want someone to say “Nice work!” Even better, you want someone to say “Nice work! The drawers look really level and I can’t believe you finished in just six hours.”
A good compliment:
Is about something the receiver did themselves or was a part of. It’s no fun being complimented for something you didn’t actually do or have any say in.
Is specific. Hearing “You look great,” is great and all, but maybe that person says that to everyone. Hearing “You look great. Purple really suits you, especially that shade,” is better, because it shows that the compliment giver was paying attention to you, specifically. It also seems more sincere.
Ideally, shows knowledge of why the achievement is special. Would you rather hear “Excellent job!” on opening night of your new off-off-Broadway show from an accountant or an acclaimed actor? The actor, of course, because they have a better idea of what an excellent job performing in a show does or does not look like. If the compliment giver is not, say, Patrick Stewart but Jane from Accounting, however, she can still show knowledge by saying something like “Excellent job! It was amazing the way you conveyed sorrow with only your eyes when the dog died. That’s incredibly tricky even for acclaimed actors.”
Now that we know what a good compliment looks like, how can we use it to pitch our product or service in a proposal response? By turning the compliment to what we’re trying to sell.
Let’s say the Soft Rock Café is looking for a new utensil to offer their diners. We want to tell them how great our product, Spork, is but we just don’t know how we’re going to convince them. It’s a good product and all, but how do you convince Soft Rock Café of that? Explain why you chose three tines instead of four? Present a chart showing how much can fit in the bowl based on viscosity and surface tension? How do you know what they’re interested in hearing? Just pretend you’re giving yourself a compliment.
What would you love to hear Soft Rock Café say? How about “Wow, that’s a fantastic utensil!”? And then we’d want them to get specific, showing that they really mean it and they were paying attention when we gave our presentation. “The star handle design looks great, and I love that it comes in so many colors.” The cherry on top would be when they compare us to other utensils they’ve seen. “It’s especially amazing that I can eat soup and spaghetti using the same utensil. That’s an engineering feat that I haven’t seen before.”
Now we’ve got everything we need to write about how great Spork is!
“Spork is a fantastic utensil choice for Soft Rock Café. Featuring a beautiful star design on the handle and available in a wide range of colors, Spork is sure to please visually. Even better, diners will be amazed to find they can eat soup and spaghetti with the same utensil! This engineering feat was developed by our in-house product team and is available exclusively with Spork.”
Notice that we didn’t imagine a compliment on the number of tines we chose. That’s certainly good information to include in your proposal, but leave it for the technical specs. If you can’t imagine someone appreciating a piece of information enough to compliment you on it, it doesn’t belong in your sales pitch.
As an added bonus, when you write with compliments positivity will naturally flow through the pages. No one wants a product or service that feels dull or, worse, negative. They want to feel good, and compliments are an easy way to accomplish that. In fact, you’ll feel better, because it’s easier to promote your product when you’re thinking about the good things it can do. The results of compliments, you might say, are positively editorial.