The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2008

This Annual List of Top Ten Communicators of 2008 highlights the best (and worst) from business, politics (big this year), entertainment, sports and the professions. Take a look to see how communication skills helped make or break these notable individuals:


1. Barack Obama

As his star continues to rise, there’s just no contest for #1 Best Communicator.

And it’s not just because he was elected President that he deserves #1, but that he was elected President BECAUSE of his communications ability. President-elect Obama is the first repeat at #1 (2006) and for the same reason. He vaulted from obscurity on the strength of his words and speeches at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and just kept talking. To date he hasn't really done much except communicate. Shows you how important that skill is. One of the greatest modern orators, we’ll now see if he can replace Bill Clinton as “the great communicator” while in office.

2. Tim Russert

He was one of the best, and we’ll miss him.

One of our best TV journalists died this year, and he would have made this list without the posthumous honor. Russert was personable, energetic and open but also tough, incisive and smart. Meet The Press, and Network TV News will never be the same. His son Luke Russert was eloquent in his eulogy, and maybe there will be more…

3. Randy Pausch

An unknown, until he gave one speech about his mortality. 

“The Last Speech” of 48 year old Professor Randy Pausch has deservedly received an amazing 8 million views on YouTube by 2008. This popular Professor took the stage at Carnegie Mellon late in 2007 to announce that this would be his last speech. He was dying of cancer. And this one singular moment remains a classic communication masterpiece – in addition to the emotion without maudlin, Pausch is funny, energetic and fully engaging. He did continue to speak in smaller settings until his death on July 25, 2008, and his communicating led to the best selling book “The Last Lecture”.

4. Colin Powell

Always great, in 2008 he gave the interview of the year.

Colin Powell has always been a great communicator, and thereby a great leader. He is on the Top Ten this year for his masterful press conference when he endorsed Barack Obama. Clear, strong and in control in a Q&A with Tom Brokaw, Powell gave Obama perhaps the final boost he needed. It came from a highly respected communicator who himself could perhaps have been President had he chosen. He communicates like a President should.

5. Mike Huckabee

The one repeat from last year – he can’t be held down.

Governor Huckabee deserves his repeat on the Top Ten Best list (he was #1 in 2007) because of what he continued to accomplish with his speaking style and quick wit. He did two new things of note in 2008: Became an upset winner and viable candidate for the Presidency before his ‘value proposition’ did him in. Then he went on to be a conservative spokesperson with a national TV Show on Fox, called “Huckabee”. I hunch he will continue to thrive because he communicates well in any setting.

6. John Chambers

A remarkable businessman who’s speaking ability drives his company.

It’s good to have a businessman on the Best list in this economically woeful year. Cisco CEO John Chambers is a remarkable communicator who has led the evolution of Cisco Systems into the "human network." As a spokesperson for the industry. He is articulate, an advocate (and on issues beyond business), and a highly respected innovator (such as in this 3D Telepresence demo from India). When government leaders and Presidential candidates want to align with a powerful business person, they call on Chambers.

7. Sarah Palin

A remarkable woman in a remarkable rise to celebrity.

She electrified the public with her speaking ability and galvanized the Republican base. But I was even more impressed at her confidence under pressure. Several times. She was mocked by the media after McCain picked her as her choice for VP, until her acceptance speech when she wowed the country. After some missteps she was again counted out by the media and most others, until her electrifying speech at the Republican Convention. As a pure speaker on a national stage – whether using the teleprompter or not - she is surprisingly the best of all the candidates, including Obama. It’s the other communicating where she falls short. (See the Worst list below.)

8. The New Communicators – Nancy and Garr, Seth and Guy

There’s a new breed of communicator, and they are leading a vanguard.

There are those who speak well, and also use the new tools of communication in creating a new paradigm for connecting and influencing in a shrinking electronic world:

  • Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds – both are best known for their design brilliance, but in 2008 they have exploded in impact with books and blogs. Nancy has written ‘Slide:ology’ and Garr has written ‘Presentation Zen’ – and both books are amazing best sellers that have revolutionized the business presentation business. Although they deal with design, both books are different and more profound – they deal with communicating messages effectively. PowerPoint will never be the same thank goodness. And Nancy and Garr are now in high demand on the ‘professional speaking circuit’ as well because they also communicate with excellence face-to-face.
  • Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki – both are gurus in the tech/internet/social media space, because they are brilliant, speak brilliantly and funny, and then cast their influence further through books and blogs, tweets and tele, speaking and showering pithiness wherever they go. I’m amazed when I ask a business client if they’ve heard of Seth and his book ‘Tribes’, or Guy and his book ‘Reality Check’(or any of their many other books) and I sometimes hear the response, “Who?” If you haven’t heard of any of these four, you will soon. And seek them out. They are the new communicators, coming at you in all media.

9. Tina Fey

How could she not be on the Top Ten Best list? Tina Fey is not only a top comedienne, a brilliant writer and producer of the Emmy winning series “30 Rock” but a sought after celebrity. Newsday even called it "The Year of the Fey." And though she became a household name in 2008 because of her uncanny Sarah Palin parodieson Saturday Night Live, she was on the rise well before. She is always real, natural and honest, and she will be a communicating force in the future, and probably beyond television.

10. Anderson Cooper

He’s one of a kind – leading a new breed of journalists.

Hard-hitting yet compassionate. Personable yet objective. Anderson Cooper is incisive and engaged (images of Anderson Cooper being blown about in a hurricane come to mind). And above all he’s savvy.Cooper not only speaks with no hesitation, he can control a loud group of CNN spin-doctors with a light touch. When he does a set piece, it is a conversation rather than a lecture. He’s come far, and should go even farther.


The Ten Worst Communicators of 2008

1. George Bush

When George Bush speaks, nobody listens.

That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of this Presidency – the Bully Pulpit is gone. And it basically has been missing since shortly after September 11, 2001, President Bush’s one moment in time of powerful communicating. In the few weeks on and after 9/11 he was authentic, strong and powerful. He felt our pain and communicated leadership. But soon after he slipped back to the shrugs and smirks, and tangles of syntax and grammar. It perhaps reached a nadir in the response to Katrina. Such is not the communications of a leader. Having so little influence this past year, it is sad to put our President as the #1 worst communicator of 2008.

2. Richard Fuld

More than a poster child.

The CEO of Lehman is more than the poster child for the greed that was a big cause of our financial mess of this past year. Richard Fuld is also incompetent as a communicator, and not only gave a terrible visual impression in his congressional testimony, but what he said was as bad as how he looked. When you have made $430 million dollars you don’t act arrogant, nose uplifted, as your company goes broke. You don’t parse obtuse PowerPoints on national television, and not reap the consequences. A sad day for business, and a devastating day for Lehman Brothers.

3. Rod Blagojevich

The hair, and everything else.

Well, appearance isn’t everything, but why the long hair (a 50 year old trying to be an 18 year old), and then the obfuscation, then the maneuvering. To say nothing of the eye dart and fidgety manner on camera. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is fighting the charges of corruption, and looks like he will drag it to the bitter end. So we’ll probably see more of the stark comparison of the communications and the manner of the pursued, Blagojevich, with the pursuer, Federal Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is excellent in manner and content.

4. Elliot Spitzer

The tragic fall of a Governor who can actually speak quite well.

Tragedy occurs when a character is brought to ruin caused by his own weaknesses. NY Governor Elliot Spitzer’s fall as a rising star was never more apparent as in his 'mea culpa' speech, where he had not planned to resign. He was anything but resigned in manner. What was evident was his hubris and arrogance in communicating that he did 'something' without acknowledging breaking the law consorting with prostitutes. And to have his wife sadly standing by as he shows no humility – now that’s a tragedy.

5. Roger Clemens

Another fall from grace.

It seems that 2008 was a year with many falls from high platforms (and we haven’t even included John Edwards who was a Presidential candidate.) Although perhaps not as serious as Elliot Spitzer but just as sad was the case of baseball hero Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. When Clemens lied to the Congressional panel about his history with his trainer, steroids, and then later about consorting with young women – there were millions of young boys who lost a hero. We need our heros, and we need them to speak the truth with confidence. This baseball great tried to speak with confidence on this national stage of congress, but he faltered, and it did not ring true.

6. Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin was both the best, and the worst.

From the stage and platform, and when well prepared, Sarah Palin is a great communicator. (She’s on the Top Ten Best List). But when she is either unprepared or caught off guard, she is a disaster. This is very unusual, and I can’t remember seeing it on this big a scale. Palin is actually good in an interview when she knows her subject (as in this clip with Maria Bartiromo talking about Alaska gas exploration). But millions now have seen her unprepared with Katie Couric, where she picks the wrong things to say. It’s a matter of judgment that did her in, as she chooses confidently but glibly. And this includes making a televised statement at Thanksgiving with a backdrop of a farmer preparing a turkey for slaughter. Palin is a paradox – a study in contrasts. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

7. Dan Rather

Rather is finally rousted.

Likability is paramount, and Dan Rather never had it. Think of likability and trust – they go hand in hand, as in Walter Cronkite. On the other hand we have Rather, who in both communication style and affability is curt and distant, and ultimately made a mistake that finally forced him out. And the only reason it took so long was the CBS brass for some reason kept him on in spite of diminishing ratings. (Katie Couric caught off guard comments on him.) His story of lack of communication connectedness is featured in my newly revised book just out, “You’ve Got To Be Believed To Be Heard.”

8. Al Davis

This man is grim.

Al Davis owns the Oakland Raiders, and he is grim. He could afford to be grim and distant from the press when he was winning, and he was. Now the Oakland Raiders are losing - badly, over many years with a record six seasons of 11 plus losses – and Al Davis is firing his coaches annually. And with vitriol. He looks, sounds and acts grim. People can be forgiven for making mistakes, but Al Davis is on this list because in never acknowledging his mistakes he is acerbic, closed, and arrogant. And looks like he is wrong too.

9. Rosie O’Donnell

This woman is grim.

Rosie O’Donnell is grim, and that’s not good for a comedienne. Rosie should be Rosie, but she not only gets caught up in mud slinging battles with her peers (past) on The View, and Donald Trump, and the media, she is vitriolic in her diatribes on political issues. Her face shows anger and intolerance. She has a good vocabulary but it doesn’t take her very far. Her new show Rosie Live premiered in November and bombed. Her popularity continues to diminish as her humor dims.

10. John McCain

A man of character but not of communication.

Although John McCain might not have won the presidency even if he was as good a speaker as Barack Obama, he still could have done much better. Sure it was tough to overcome the burden of Iraq, the economy and the unpopularity of George Bush. But when you’re counted down and out before you’ve picked your Vice Presidential choice, something else is wrong. And then when your VP choice of Sarah Palin so overwhelms your candidacy because of HER communications, you know where the problem is. It’s sad too, because McCain was so much better in his concession speech and after the campaign, when he could just be himself. Just think what might have happened if he had communicated with the same naturalness during the campaign.

42 thoughts on “The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2008
  1. Hey Bert,
    If you wanna be fair, Barack Obama too should be in the best and worst categories along with Palin. His responses to many questions (Wright/Ayers, etc.) resonated just as badly with many conservatives as Palin’s responses did with liberals.

  2. Tried to be fair! Actually Obama made a few misteps (ie. “Above my pay grade.”) as any candidate under that scrutiny would. But he usually shows great judgment in choosing what he says – even if he sometimes sounds professorial in doing so.
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. I *do* like how you included Palin on both lists. That’s partly a story of how someone can fall apart under pressure. I do not fault her; it would take a superhuman person to not fall apart in that position.

  4. Granted, these are my opinions, but not just popularity (I dislike some of the Best, and like some of the Worst.) But I’ll defend Colin Powell as a great communicator any day. Many examples, but most powerful is seeing him in person on the stage as I have a couple of times.
    Thanks for your opinion.

  5. Great assessment, Bert — and I think you have written it in a very unbiased manner, particularly where it comes to Sarah Palin.
    I agree, I’m not totally enamoured with some of those people but it can’t be denied that they are great communicators and similarly those that I quite like that are complete disasters.
    A very happy New Year to you and your family

  6. Heya Bert, Thanks for the opportunity to comment. I would be interested to see the formula used to identify the “winners and losers”
    Whereas I agree with most of your list, the exclusion of Congressman Ron Paul (from the Best List) is definite oversight.
    Consider: A relative unknown libertarian running for the republican nomination set records in fundraising; exponentially increased visibility, awareness, credibility and conversions; smart, accurate, on-point talking points that foretold of a financial collapse; excellent communication design; more individual campaign contributions for military service personnel; the most meet-up groups, globally, and on and on… all without the aide of his political party, all without the aid of single red cent from tax payers, all without the aid of Big Donor Phantom PAC’s.
    Considering what Dr. Paul and his team accomplished with fundraising, social media, edge-based organizational management and genuine grassroots proliferation (despite overwhelming odds against these initiatives, generally,) He definitely deserves at place at this table.
    Towards creative fidelity,
    Jason Stoddard
    PS How did Jesse Jackson and Michael Vick not make the “Worst List”?

  7. It’s always subjective Jason, but I try to be objective. I can tell you feel strongly about Ron Paul. And Jesse Jackson and Michael Vick are right up there on the Worst list in 2008, but I felt some others were stronger, or had more of a teaching point in their selection. I like to have the list mean something.
    (Caroline Kennedy almost made it at the last minute, as there was such a strong teaching point in her “you knows” and “ums” that totally destroyed leadership creditability. But the returns aren’t in yet on that one.)
    Thanks, Bert

  8. Colin Powell one of best speakers I’ve ever heard on the podium & he was also excellent on his Obama choice on television. And with Powell, it’s substance over form. Not to say he wouldn’t be in Top 10 on form but the insight he delivers is outstanding; compelling. Deserves Top 10 honor you’ve given him.

  9. Anderson Cooper is an actor, not a journalist. Alex Jones is a journalist, more knowledgeable, smarter than any of the media people here. (But the list has to be open and look outside the box). Obama will be a puppet just like Bush. He will not keep any of his promises, he won’t be allowed to. Ron Paul is a communicator. Colin Powell sold us WMD too. Some people have way too much credit. 🙂

  10. Thanks for the comments you all who are complimentary – makes me feel good. And Jim, your “Some people have way too much credit” is due primarily to their communications – which makes my point about how critical it is to be able to speak well if you want to influence!

  11. Great lists, Bert.
    Thanks for including Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds. They are change agents with a delightfully fresh approach to presentation design. I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more from them. Coupling their design ideas together with your teaching of the fundamentals of good speaking, and maybe there is hope that today’s trite business communications will begin to shift from boring to inspiring. We’re going to need it in 2009.

  12. Bert, I love that you include people on your lists (best or worst) regardless if you like them personally. Your seeming objectivity is ONE of the sole reasons I so enjoy your blog and your lists. I didn’t like Colin Powell’s reasoning in his support of Obama but I simply can’t deny he is a good communicator. I’ve heard him speak in person and, as an ex-military person myself, I could hardly stay in my chair because he motivated me so. He is GOOD and carries a certain air of credibility and trust that is worthy of honor.
    Great job on the list as always. The fact that I might have chosen differently here or there only makes it more fun!

  13. What about Hank Paulson? For someone who has almost absloute authority to dispense $700B of taxpayer money, it would be nice to get the impression that he knows what he is doing. He comes off like a deer in headlights.

  14. Hey Chas, great to see you on here. And Paulson was on the short list – and very well could have made it on the worst list. Because the list has “impact” as a criteria, and the returns are not yet in (though it bodes ill), he remains a candidate for the 2009 list. (Along with Caroline Kennedy…)

  15. Reading these comments, I might’ve expected political bias in your comments – but I didn’t see it. I think your comments were objective, and they generally rang true, based on my impressions during 2008.
    It’s interesting to see the somewhat strong reactions from your readers.
    Nice article. Thanks for the Summary.

  16. Excellent list and comments. I would respond to Mike Smock that in this day and age I doubt anyone running for office in a major party will not become a polarizing figure; it goes with the territory. From all I’ve read about Obama, he’s one of the best at bringing opposing sides together to actually accomplish something. But even his pick of Rev Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration was polarizing to his own supporters.
    So I ask: In this age of bloggers, opinion-spewers, instant feedback and access to all sides of an issue, what major political figure does NOT polarize?

  17. As to the comment that Obama was a polarizing figure… WHAT?
    The man has approvals in the high 80s! Nothing about his style is polarizing. Political bias against Democrats drove that comment – not facts.
    If an African American can be elected President, he HAS to be a good communicator, given the odds stacked against him.
    I agree Huckabee is a great communicator – not evaluating his politics – just his communications skills. They are significant.
    Palin is the only place we disagree. I see her on the worst list – but nowhere on the best. She’s the poorest speaker I have ever seen. No matter what she said at the GOP Convention they were going to applaud her. You have to look at her ability to speak without a script – she has none.

  18. I really like this list. I like it’s balance and fair representation. To often people can’t separate feelings and judgments. You’ve done a very good job of that here. I also like the mention of ‘the new communicators’.

  19. Seth – thanks.
    Scott -Look at Palin again.
    Bill – Oops, it is corrected.
    Phil – thanks. Love to get those nice comments from people who ‘get it.’ Particularly about The New Communicators.

  20. Bert, thanks for putting this together. On your “top-10 best” list, I would have selected former WH press secretary Tony Snow, who died around the same time in 2008 as Tim Russert. Whatever one thinks of Snow’s politics, he was an effective spokesman for the Administration.
    Would have also selected Pope Benedict XVI for “top-10 best” honors. His visit to the US in April was a communications triumph.
    Really enjoy your blog!!

  21. Hi Bert, I like the lists. But Henry Paulson has got to be one of the worst no? All I could think of were my Decker instructors as I watched Paulson read his statements on the bailout, rarely if ever looking up for a brief eye dart, and then head back down. No passion, no integrity, just a flat monotone the whole way through. It made me not trust him from the very beginning. Eve in San Jose, CA

  22. Hi Eve,
    Great to see your comments, and you are right on about Henry Paulson – and very perceptive in your insights. Paulson was on the short list – and perhaps should have made the final cut as we have seen the results from his lack of communication and trust – the loss of public confidence – get worse and worse. And one criteria for the list is impact of influence (or lack thereof.) But it is done for this year, maybe next…

  23. Bert: Awesome list, as always. Thank you. Someone who may deserve to make it on your 2009 list is Van Jones, president of Green For All and author of The Green Collar Economy. An informed, inspiring, practical voice. Looking forward to working with Ben and you this year. With best wishes, Tyler

  24. Interesting list, however it seems like these were just some of the most popular people in 08′ I mean how is Tina Fey a top communicator?
    and how is Palin able to be the best and worst, she’s terrible.
    just my 2 cents…

  25. If you are going to incluse Sarah Palin on the best and worst list, you need to also include Obama on the worst list. Countless times Obama has been caught off script and has stumbled all over himself. The classic case was with Joe the Plumber. Telling a blue collar worker in the process of trying to build his business that he must pay for others as well. That was a complete blunder on Obama’s part. I know most would not see it that way because they simply will ignore the negatives presented by Obama.

  26. I’m always surprised when public figures and celebrities make a mess with there communication skills. They are more media savvy than most, so they realise just how important the right words and attitude can be. The former England Soccer Manager spent £100,000 on media skills lessons with a famous TV presenter and landed himself a £4Million job. That’s a great ROI. Rgds Vince

Leave a Reply
blog post