The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2013

Announcing the 18th Annual Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of the Year! The list is diverse, including business and global leaders, athletes, politicians and celebrities, with specific examples and tangible takeaways. See how these lessons translate for use with your colleagues, your customers and even your kids.

The 10 Best

Speaking out against the status quo – and actually creating change – is hard. The challenge and testament of a true communicator is to lead and influence action. The Top Ten Best Communicators of 2013 created change, caused us to think and act differently and powerfully moved us in the process.

1.  MANDELA + MALALA Great Communicators, Different Eras, Same Cause

#1: Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai
United against injustice and persecution, it is only fitting that our top spot for 2013 is shared by two extraordinary communicators – symbolically passing the torch from the legendary Mandela to the young Malala, poised and outspoken beyond her years.

Icon of Unrelenting Dedication
Modern Symbol of Influence
Nelson Mandela was not only a unique and inspiring world leader, he was also a consummate communicator. The three outstanding communication lessons that Mandela epitomized are also attributes of character, yet they must be visible – lived and breathed – if they are to have impact: Authenticity, influence and humble confidence. He communicated those, and so much more. It is only fitting that he head the list as the #1 Best Communicator in 2013. Synonymous with resilience and eloquence, Malala Yousafazi survived a Taliban assassination attempt from point-blank range. Before the attack and ever since, she has actively spoken out with great energy, confidence and likability (here, at the UN) for the cause of freedom and education for all. Inspirational, focused and articulate, Malala has an amazing command of message. Even Jon Stewart was speechless after hearing her clear point of view. Recipient of the UN 2013 Human Rights Prize and the youngest Nobel Prize Nominee ever at 16, Malala is a modern symbol of influence and inspiration.

2. DICK COSTOLO – The Voice of the Little Birdie

#2: Dick Costolo
The Twitter CEO with a big voice, routinely uses humor – specifically self-deprecating humor – to connect with his audience. Dick Costolo communicates for results, and his skills went a long way in establishing Twitter’s enormous value. Whether he’s on a big stage, in a fireside chat, in front of his team or just tweeting (which, let’s face it, is an important 2013 communication form), Costolo is direct – his favorite management tactic – while still being accessible, disarming and funny. He relates to his listeners using stories and energy (to roaring applause at this commencement address at the University of Michigan, his alma mater). Best of all, though, Dick builds rapport, another critical element of success during Twitter’s 2013 quiet period, investor roadshow and $1.82 billion IPO.

3. POPE FRANCIS – Humble Confidence

#3: Pope Francis
Pope Francis is focused on creating a connection with people, and he has clearly communicated that the church should be less judgmental, more inclusive. Much like Pope John Paul, memorable because of his communications and impact, Pope Francis communicates by accessibility instead of elitism: humbly living among the people, spending time out in the community, speaking openly, de-emphasizing politics and candidly doing media interviews. He even takes selfies with tourists. Pope Francis has set a fresh tone for the Catholic Church, unburying the lead from hot-button political issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraceptive methods. Pope Francis, the people’s Pope and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, is another great example of humble confidence. It’s how he communicates – it’s how he is.

4. ASTRO TELLER – 10X Communicating for 10X Thinking

#4: Astro Teller
His official title is The Captain of Moonshots. Tasked with what may seem impossible, his role is to deliver it. From creating a self-driving car to enabling everyone in the world to access to the internet to putting a computer on someone’s face, the Head of Google X paints a picture that even the most audacious moonshots are possible. This kind of thinking demands communicating at a 10X level – both internally and externally – to get people to believe in these ideas and inspired to make them happen. Scientist and entrepreneur, he has the potential to be all tech specs, yet Astro Teller is remarkably engaging and easy to understand. He tells stories that connect with us, using imagery and concrete details that help his ideas come to life. He’s credible (we know he’s wicked smart) and likeable (love the smile). What do we like best? That he is out talking to us, instead of staying in the lab.

5. BLAKE MYCOSKIE – Many Steps in the Right Direction

#5: Blake Mycoskie
We can’t believe we’ve missed this founder and Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS (shoes) on our list in the last few years. Simply put – he’s great. Likable and authentic, we easily connect with Mycoskie’s sincerity, we laugh along with his cause marketing, and we admire the way he connects with his consumers. People want products with purpose, and TOMS passed a major milestone in 2013: It has given away over 10 million pair of shoes and 150,000 pair of glasses. This year Mycoskie also launched a major new initiative – starting the TOMS Marketplace. The initiative harnesses 30 different social enterprises and 200 products that all have a giving component – a feat that could not be done without good communicating. He shows us how to build relationships through communicating, in professional and personal life.

6. ALAN MULALLY – Driving Results with Likability

#6: Alan Mulally
Not only has CEO Alan Mulally led the turn around of Ford Motor Company, one of the Big 3 automakers, but he has done it with vision, leadership and a smile. Using the same tactics that helped him resuscitate Boeing after 9/11, his communication style exudes likability and lightness, making him credible to the investment community – unifying and inspirational to Ford employees – and influential with customers. He embodies our principles of “forward lean” in all of his communications, and he is out front with all of these audiences as he tells the story of the new and improved Ford Motor Company. As earnings continue to increase, analysts are clamoring to know what’s next for this Superstar CEO – for major turnarounds happen under his leadership.

7. DEBBIE STERLING – Engineering Change

#7: Debbie Sterling, Founder and CEO of Goldieblox
If we close our eyes and picture an engineer, chances are that it won’t be long before it might be Debbie Sterling. She created GoldieBlox, an engineering toys for girls, for which she launched a prototype on Kickstarter in 2012. By mid-2013, GoldieBlox became a top-selling toy. Clearly, it’s a great idea. But the real reason for its success is the confident, concrete communication of Founder and CEO Debbie Sterling. Her passionate story has echoed from the TED stage to Shopify to the press circuit, to the aisles of Toys”R”Us. By crystalizing and breaking gender stereotypes, Sterling got our attention. Now, she’s engineering change for our kids’ generation.

8. CHRIS CHRISTIE – No Spin for the Authentic

#8: Chris Christie
We named him a poster child for authenticity in 2011, and Governor Chris Christie continues to be a refreshing face in today’s world of political spin. He does what he feels is right – crossing party lines to unite with President Obama for solutions to New Jersey’s epic Hurricane Sandy disaster – opening a Senate race to rival Cory Booker – and speaking out for controversial issues in the height of his own campaign for reelection. Perhaps that’s why he won again in a landslide despite being a Republican in a Democratic State. He is an authentic communicator, and thus an effective collaborator. We’re watching his stock as a presidential prospect – based on his communications, alone.

9. DR. BRENE BROWN – Professor of Vulnerability

#9: Dr. Brene Brown
An academic vaulted into TED stardom by boldly talking about vulnerability, best-selling author Dr. Brené Brown wins us with her communications. Brown never holds back. Whenever she speaks, it feels like you are in a conversation with her. She creates incredible connection with audiences – building trust, developing a feeling of safety, exposing vulnerability and opening others up. We should all have a goal of being so conversational, real and entertaining. Vulnerability is not a weakness; rather, it’s one of the most powerful communication tools that the very best leaders use to connect and inspire.

10. JIMMY SPITHILL – Sailing In Under the Wire

#10: Jimmy Spithill
Handling pressure with grace, Jimmy Spithill, skipper for Oracle Team USA, motivated his team to a come-from-behind victory after a seemingly insurmountable deficit of 1-8 (out of a best of 9 race series) in the 2013 America’s Cup. Boy, would we like to have been a fly on the wall while he rallied the team. Spithill exudes likability with his mega-watt smile, a perfect anecdote to the constant demands of media and fans. The poor Kiwis had to extend their stay – only to be met with disappointment. Motivating action is no easy feat; however, it’s a requisite responsibility for almost every leader. Spithill nailed it, demonstrating that top-notch communication skills are the key to motivation.

The 10 Worst

Obfuscation at best, lying at worst – those are the common denominators of our Top 10 Worst list this year. Common to all are poor communications skills, and for most the missed opportunity where a public figure had influence by position or circumstance, and yet in contrast to those on the Best list, did not use their platform to persuade effectively for good.

1. JAMES CLAPPER – Poster Child for the Behavioral Giveaway

#1: James Clapper
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a congressional committee, and when asked a yes-or-no question he answered – so incredibly undermining trust and believability that this clip of head scratching has become a classic example of behavior contradicting content. Now if that was the only instance for Clapper, he wouldn’t be at the #1 on our Worst Communicators list – but it was a symptom of many. Sure, we have grown accustomed to government officials providing indirect answers when questioned at hearings, but following the fallout of the NSA surveillance leaks Clapper’s responses so often come with distracting behavior that he ruins his credibility, along with our trust for him and his work at the NSA. After all, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck… quacks like a duck…

2. PAULA DEEN – Recipe for Disaster

#2: Paula Deen
Racial slurs, question evading and covering up the details are the ingredients for a communication disaster, not a trusted businessperson. Paula Deen’s attempt at “damage control” also proved damaging to her business empire. She released a string of disastrous internet apology videos, like this one, then she appeared on the TODAY Show (after skipping her first scheduled interview). She was slow talking, defensive, and disengaging. The impact? By the end of June, 12 major companies had cut ties with her, including her book publisher, the Food Network, Sears, Smithfield, Target and Wal-Mart. Though she still works to rebuild her brand, she’d already spun herself a nasty sour aftertaste. Credibility rides communication, and Paula is at a stop sign.

3. JOHN BOEHNER + HARRY REID – Low Affect, Low Connection, Low Collaboration

#3: John Boehner and Harry Reid
Both sides of the political aisle have flawed communicators as leaders, Senator Harry Reid and Congressman John Boehner. Partisan politics are at their worst these days. Sure, issues divide, but so do leaders who aren’t very persuasive. Their behavior – low affect, communicating at the extreme and no collaboration. Reid reads his speeches on the Senate floor in a flat monotone. And Boehner is better known for his Merlot and golf than for gathering his cohorts to make an impactful vote. Don’t know whether Boehner will last long enough as Speaker to get on the list again – Reid makes it for a second time (2010) as he continues to drone on. No wonder approval rating of congress is at an all time low.

4. CHIP WILSON – We See Right Through You

#4: Chip Wilson
After all the drama with the see-through fabric of their signature black pants, Dennis “Chip” Wilson, Founder of Lululemon Athletica, dug himself into a hole by saying (at 2:33) that Lululemon pants aren’t for every body type. Later, he gives a not-so-sincere video apology. The lesson here is two-fold: Focus on your audience, and focus on the words. Words, alone, can alienate the very people you want to influence – your team, your customers, your fans, etc. Oh, and about that video apology: according to new research, corporate executives who apologize to customers by video had better feel sorry – or their stock prices will suffer. Add Chip Wilson to the list. Instead of watching his stock rise, he’s lost his core devotees – and his job.


#5: Mike Rice and Richie Incognito
Verbal abuse has long been a part of sports, but these two really crossed the line by being reprehensible – without remorse. Mike Rice, ex-head coach for Rutgers basketball team, was fired this year for verbally abusing his players, as recorded on these tapes. Shown here discussing his aggressive actions, Rice fuels the fire with eye darts and non-words, also back peddling on his message. Miami Dolphins Lineman Richie Incognito sent profanity-laced, threatening texts to his teammates. Post-incident, he said, “No matter how bad and how vulgar it sounds, that’s how we communicate … It sounds like I’m a racist pig. It sounds like I’m a meathead…” Yes, Richie, it does. And with those eye darts, alone (not to mention his legacy of harassment), he affirms that message. Sports culture needs to be changed, not excused. For both Rice and Incognito they were looking to be excused – their communications causes them to be dismissed.

6. MILEY CYRUS – From Likeable to Unlikeable

#6: Miley Cyrus
A piece of us feels that we are feeding the system, here, by giving her more attention. Miley Cyrus’s message is all about Miley all the time. The problem is, up close and personal Miley comes across as unlikeable – like Hope Solo or Ryan Lochte. She has the opportunity to be like Lady Gaga, who can be articulate and shocking. Instead of twerking, we wish she’d tweak her communication skills – particularly the Behavioral Big 6: She runs her words together without a pausedarting and rolling her eyes all around as if she has no care for anyone – posture off to one side – and using so many non-words: “like,” “ya know,” “nah,” “I mean…” Chart-topping Miley says she is committed to turning her negatives into positives – we hope so.

7. ANTHONY WEINER – Oh No, Not Again!

#7: Anthony Weiner
Oops, he did it again. And that’s why he’s on the list this year – a repeat from the Top Ten Worst of 2011– he didn’t learn from his experience.  We advocate getting feedback, and using it to gain better performance. (As you know, feedback is a key principle of the Decker Method.) Weiner certainly had enough feedback – but he came back and again communicated very inappropriately, with arrogant hubris rather than the humble confidence leaders should show. And then again lied, obfuscated, wheedled, and even shouted at a follower – all on our list of poor communications. We do NOT want people like that to lead us, as the results in his New York City Mayoral primary race showed – he even flipped the bird to the crowd as he garnered a pitiful less than 5% of the vote (and we’d love to know who those 5% were). Hope he lays low for awhile, and finally learns from this pretty convincing feedback.

8. EDWARD SNOWDEN – Missed Opportunity

#8: Edward Snowden

In a country where plenty of people buy into fear-of-federal government theories and rhetoric, Snowden’s whistle-blowing at first had some degree of resonance. His story was simple: I am an average citizen, and I had access to secret information that I felt was deplorable and needed to be known by the general public. With the attention of the whole world, he could have opened a global dialogue on ‘whistle blowing’. Instead, he chose to stay silent and hide out – what a huge missed opportunity! When he finally spoke out about it, he comes across as totally unlikeable, with such low affect, a serious face and eyes darting all around. Do you feel compassion for him? The disparity between Snowden’s words and actions is too difficult to bridge. He just seems like an ill-construed jerk who has jeopardized his country’s security needlessly.

9. ROB FORD – Outrageous Outbursts

#9: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
Communications is not just in our speeches, but in all our words and behaviors. No better example of how one’s communications can undermine any influence is in Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. He is often authentic, which is usually a great trait for a leader, but as soon as Rob Ford lets down his guard – he seems to go out of control. He has now admitted to smoking crack, and getting drunk, but insists he is not an addict. Even physically knocking over a city council woman as he aggressively ran toward the public gallery during a council meeting. Hardly what we advise doing with a Q&A forum. Another issue: His messaging. Profane, aggressive, defiant – and inconsistent. (Warning: Strong language in this clip.) Keep the cocaine, keep the booze, and please, Rob Ford, keep yourself out of the spotlight.

10. PRESIDENT OBAMA – Yes, Again.

#10 - President Obama

The President almost always has to be on the list – for good or ill. President Obama was the #1 best in 2006 and again in 2008. He is great on the campaign trail in front of big audiences, highly skilled in rhetoric. But from there, the President has descended to living by teleprompter and speechwriters – not leading us from the heart. He made the Worst list in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The rhetoric from past campaigns wears thin in the bright glare of the healthcare debacle and government incompetence. President Harry Truman personified authenticity when he coined the phrase, “The buck stops here.” Policies can be argued, but the lack of authenticity and sincerity in our President is visceral – and it’s reflected in a growing lack of trust in the polls – disapproval rating at an all-time high. The bully pulpit should be used to unite the country, and yet both political sides agree the country is more divided now than it has been in decades.

What do you think? Who did we miss? Who would you omit? Or swap?

Tell us in the comments!


Photo Credit: Best: APImages: 1,2,5,8,10. istockphoto: 3,6. Goldieblox: 7. F.Sanchez: 9. Worst: APImages: 1,2,5,6,8,9. istockphoto:3,7, Lululemon: 4. 10.

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