The Power of a Sincere Compliment

 “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”
-Mark Twain

A number of years ago, I had the honor of being selected by my peers to serve as President of our state’s chapter of the National Speakers Association. One of the things I most enjoyed about my office was standing at the door and greeting people as they arrived at our monthly meetings. Our meetings were always open to the public in order to encourage those so inclined to learn about the profession of professional speaking.

One evening as I was greeting people, a Division I men’s basketball coach approached me. He had just been let go from his job, and the local media had covered the story in great detail. He introduced himself to me, and I responded by telling him that I knew who he was. He then told me that he wanted to be a professional speaker.

I responded by telling him that he already was a professional speaker. I continued, “I heard you speak last year and almost had a stroke laughing. Oh, you’re a professional speaker alright!” He responded with a big smile and a hearty laugh. Then I continued, “Coach, I’m really sorry about what happened to you. I have followed college basketball for many years, and I think you have a great basketball mind. I’m confident that you are going to do great things in the college basketball world in the years ahead, and I’m going to be watching from the ‘sidelines’ as your biggest fan.” He smiled and graciously thanked me for my compliment. Coach entered the room, and I turned to greet the next arrival.

Some years passed, and I did keep track of Coach’s career. Some of you are probably wondering if my assessment of his ability had been accurate. Yes, it certainly was. Over the years, he rebuilt a basketball program at another university and took it all the way to a National Championship!

One day, I was going through my stack of mail after returning from a couple of weeks on the road speaking and training. During my quick sort of the pile, a colorful envelope caught my attention. Curiosity got the best of me, so I pulled that envelope and opened it. Inside was a sheet of athletic department stationery from a university on the other side of the country. I unfolded the page and started reading the handwritten note…

“Mark, I love you more than you love me. Thank you for believing in me when I had ceased to believe in myself. Kind words give courage to the heart and fire to the soul. Your friend always,    -Coach _________”

I was so overcome with this handwritten note that I started to cry. What kind things to say to me, I thought. I placed that special letter in what I now call my “Victory File.” A colleague had given me the idea for such a file early in my career, when he explained to me, “I have a special file, which I call my ‘Victory File.’ Every time I receive evidence that my life makes a difference to somebody, I place it in that file.” He continued, “Whenever I have a bad day, where I wonder if my life makes any difference to anyone, I simply open my Victory File and start reading the evidence that confirms that it does.”

Over the years, I have added many things to my Victory File. In fact, just recently, I received this note in the mail from a participant in a workshop I conducted just last month.

“How is it that after 19 years I still remember lessons from the keynote
address you delivered at Fidelity Investments—like Roger Bannister
running the first sub-four-minute mile, and many other dynamic and
applicable lessons that made me a life-long fan of Mark Swain? It’s
because you made a difference in my life. Thank you for your continuing
love of learning and desire to share what you have learned with others.
I will be forever grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn from you.”

I find it hard to express in words what such messages do for my soul. I readily admit that I have turned to the items in my Victory File numerous times, over the years, to confirm that my life has made a difference to others (Yes, even inspirational speakers at times doubt their abilities.). Each time I read one of the notes I have saved, I renew my commitment to go out into the world and continue my efforts to make a difference.

Friends, if someone influences your life for good, please let them know. Let’s not be miserly in giving sincere compliments to those who help us. Every human being craves the validation that their life makes a difference in some way. As John Greenleaf Whittier wisely put it:

“Thee lift me, and I lift thee, and together we ascend.”