The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2011

Our Top Ten Communicators List is all about Trust and Vision. Happily, we start with the Best list, where we honor those who communicate and lead well. Unfortunately, those who dominate the Worst list have garnered most of the attention in 2011 – for lack of trust on the high end and deception on the low end.

We have seen the fall of giants, as well as the sleaze of some we have never heard of. Just put these names together: Sandusky, Paterno, McQueary, Cain, Bialek, White, Fine, Boeheim, Sheen, Weiner and the list could go on and on to include CEO’s, politicians, Trustees, and celebrities. We name some of them in our Worst list, but we do not get into those tainted by the many sexual abuse cases that have reared their ugly heads in the last few months. Too much “he said, she said” and outright lying – we really yearn for those we can hear, trust, and follow. So here they are - on the Best list:

The 10 Best

1. Steve Jobs – perhaps the communicator of the decade, or century.

Steve Jobs was the rare one who created and developed vision, communicated it clearly and colorfully, and then led to completion. He has been on our Best list four times, was #1 in 2005, and presented his iconic intro of the iPhone in 2007. He not only transformed technology and the way we live, but he also transformed the way business communicates. Renowned for his Apple product introductions he moved the word “rock star” into the business world. For CEO’s, speaking will never be the same. No more Death by PowerPoint – he just used a few visuals, and then spoke from the heart. Well rehearsed, but real – authentic, and always with a message. Perhaps his greatest “speech” was at the Stanford University commencement in 2005. His message continues to echo and be a model for not only business, but the larger world. We will miss him.

2. Howard Schultz - the all around business leader/communicator.

Schultz uses excellent communications to consistently lead Starbucks to success. He began the Starbucks journey in 1987 when he had to convince people to invest and buy at the start, then inspire with vision to grow. Then in 2008 Schultz had to communicate with firmness tough decisions to fire and close stores in turning around Starbucks when they had lost their way. This year he wrote a best seller, Onward, and also we did a blog post on how he elevated his communications to join in national, political and economic dialogue. Always the innovator, now he is visioning a new juice brand with his purchase of Evolution Fresh. All this is the work of a master leader/communicator.

3. Chris Anderson - elevating speech in the TED format.

Founder of the wildly popular TED Talks, Anderson is a visionary who uses speaking and video communication to contribute to the world around him. His ability to verbalize the essence of TED continues to inspire the best and the brightest to participate, leaving viewers with hours of juicy content to imbibe. People are so inspired by the concept that there are independent mini-TED conferences springing up all over the world – and Anderson continues to speak out to support the movement. His challenge to companies to add value when advertising with Ads Worth Spreading is another mark of Chris Anderson as a leader and innovator in the world of communications.

4. Virginia Rometty - communicating on the fast track.

For the last seven years Fortune named Virginia Rometty as one of the top 50 most influential women (#8 this year) - for good reason. This year she became the first female CEO of IBM. And as bright as she was and is, it was largely her communications that elevated her. Leadership is executed through communications, and ‘Ginni’ is likeable, strong, memorable, and connects with large audiences in a very authentic style. She is a natural at incorporating SHARPs in all her communication, and does it skillfully and naturally.  Their stock is at an all time high – and we doubt that it's a coincidence.

5. Chris Christie - a political poster child for authenticity.

Although it seems like every year now is a political year, this one is a whopper. With Obama already actively campaigning for 2012, over 30! Republican debates, and allegations flying at many of the candidates – who do we believe? Who is authentic? Chris Christie leads the pack – for even his enemies say that he means what he says and says what he means. His manner is direct, often gruff, more often funny. But few question his sincerity, as he is unique in refusing to run in order to finish his job as Governor. Many Republicans wish he was running in the primary, for it’s no coincidence that his communication skills match his ability to get things done in turning around the economy in New Jersey against all political odds. He can persuade public opinion with the best of them.

6. Lady Gaga - speaking out with multi-dimensional creativity.

She’s full of surprises and loves to shock us, but what’s even more surprising is her communication ability. Although Lady Gaga projects a character that’s pretty out there (think meat dress, rotary telephone sticking out of her head, and her new groundbreaking 14’ music video) we can all learn from her creativity. She personifies originality and pushing the edge, and we all need to do a little more of that. Yet when she speaks, she’s articulate. Gaga comes across well beyond her years - poised, confident, and sincere. When interviewed, especially about her Little Monsters (aka fans), her genuine adoration for them is clear, and she becomes again, surprisingly, human. Gaga can own a stage not only with her songs, but also with her goosebump-inducing cadence when delivering a speech.

7. Warren Buffett - years of consistent communications.

It’s been a long time coming – Buffett lands himself on the list for his consistently strong communications over the years. While he is an investor and businessman, the way he speaks and conveys his ideas have made him an icon. He even has spoken on the importance of getting training in speaking! People look to him for wisdom and sage advice. He’s a trusted leader, and known to say what he thinks, even if it’s unexpected and potentially unpopular. Most notably this year, Buffett raised eyebrows with his call for more taxes on the wealthy. And his credibility is supreme, as he was the leader who corralled a bunch of other billionaires to give away their $$$ to charity – leading off with personally donating the largest charitable donation in U.S. history of $31 billion. He puts his money where his mouth is. Although he doesn't often give long speeches, he's authentic and powerful when he does, contributing to his long-cultivated reputation as a respected thought-leader.

8. Christine Lagarde - speaking powerfully from the top of the financial world.

She is elegant, stylish and stately – and tough as nails. It’s not a wonder that Christine Lagarde was elected head of the IMF after the Dominick Strauss Kahn scandal. She was the one who could handle the turmoil, and bring direction to this large and important agency. She speaks with clarity and firmness, and in so doing, marks herself as one of the top communicators in the world. She is articulate yet pointed. She knows the facts yet summarizes the key points. She is calm, knowledgeable, measured, and yet forceful in IMF policy in Italy. With one of her most charming and powerful qualities being candor she speaks with firmness and grace, and handles interviews well. She communicates as the leader she is, and if Strauss Kahn hadn’t vacated the post she would have ended up leading some other major organization.

9. Morgan Spurlock - high energy and a distinctive style puts him in his own films.

Whether he’s stuffing his face with Big Macs or recruiting sponsors for his own 2011 TED Talk Spurlock’s high energy and distinctive style continues to capture our attention. He puts himself in the middle of his documentaries, like his Academy Award nominated "Super Size Me" where he skillfully walks the line between outlandish and down to earth. Most recently his camera shined a light on movie product placement with "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." It’s Spurlock’s pervasive curiosity, grab-a-beer-with-me approachability, and passion that keep us watching and waiting for his next expose.

10. Andy Rooney - a tribute to creating a unique communications experience.

This cranky, prickly mainstay communicator of 60 Minutes was 92 in age, but young in heart and vitality. Andy Rooney continued until his death stating it like it was – as he saw it. In all, he delivered 1,097 commentaries. You might have disagreed, but you would laugh along with him. His energy, forward lean, facial mannerisms and bushy eyebrows made him someone we enjoyed watching and listening to. He made every time we saw and heard him a unique communication experience, and we will miss his witty insights.

The 10 Worst

1. Anthony Weiner - poster child for deceptive communications.

There is a poster child for this year’s theme of deception and evasion that is so pervasive in so many of the worst communicators of 2011. Anthony Weiner was a respected congressman – elected as much by his communications as his deeds. Using that same confident style, he was filled with puffed up outrage when claiming his Twitter account was hacked by someone else showing his lewd photos. Turns out we were the ones to be deceived by his lies, and when he fessed up that it was he who tweeted, he continued to obfuscate, trying to hang on to his office. But he had to hang it up, as his communications this time did him in. He had no apology, in both substance and style. He ultimately resigned in disgrace – because of the photos sure, but just as much because of communications that lacked any degree of humility, credibility and above all leadership. We don’t follow liars very well.

2. Brian Harrison and Bill Stover - Solyndra execs just do not communicate.

It’s never a good idea to NOT communicate when you are under fire, in business as well as in politics and sex scandals. Brevity and effective diversion is one thing, stonewalling is something else. When you take the 5th, you are shoving your communications right slap in the face of the public – unless you perhaps can do it with a smile, or sense of regret. No regret here, as both Harrison and Stover show how closed communications will not further the cause – but will doom it. Such performance reminds us of a few other Worst Communicators we featured here, like Mark McGuire in 2005. Communicating effectively is most critical under the toughest pressure - best to practice before. And it helps to not be guilty...

3. Charlie Sheen - erratic does not pay.

This can’t be a huge surprise for anyone who has watched TV or read the news in the last year. Charlie Sheen lost control and went on a rampage not once, twice, but for a significant portion of 2011. While Sheen has come out saying it was “one weird phase,” his sustained communication faux pas was much more – it was the start of his fall. Following the example of Mel Gibson (#5 on 2010 Worst List), Sheen lost his television role after unleashing a furious rant about his Two and a Half Men producer, and then spun off to rant across the country on a failed tour . As Sheen preached about winning, he was actually failing by becoming a joke. He may be attempting a comeback, but Sheen is a painfully clear example of how erratic communication can destroy a reputation, and perhaps a career.

4. The Murdochs & Ms. Brooks - followers communicate like their leaders.

This motley crew went on the defensive in the wake of their cell phone hacking scandal this year, communicating elusively and trying to get away with as much as possible. Father Rupert’s history of aloofness and arrogance caught up with him this year, especially as he brushed off his apologies to those affected by the hackings. Son Jim spoke most during their parliamentary hearings and found himself hissing like a cornered animal, only further highlighting his deception. To top it off, News Corp staff Rebekah Brooks, when announcing to her News of the World team that they’re jobless due to her mismanagement, spent most of the time talking about her own feelings – unsurprisingly, her staff pushed back on her arrogance. Guilty of bad journalism practices isn’t the only question here – these three are guilty of poor communication.

5. Rick Perry - it's not just the one miscue, but the overall experience.

Rick Perry had the most publicized communication failure of the year with his brain freeze in remembering his third point in a very public setting. The Rule of Three is good, but you don’t want to say “There are three things…” in advance in a very public forum such as a Presidential Debate unless you know you will remember them. Or have them in your notes. So he could have topped the Worst list with that faux pax along with his early amateurish debate performances, marked by halting mannerisms, jerky style and hostile attacks. But he’s here in the middle because he recovered pretty well, mostly by poking fun at himself. So at least there’s a positive learning point here - the power of humor.

6. Brian Moynihan - not ready for primetime.

Bank of America CEO Moynihan has had several missteps in his first year handling the $billion behemoth, from the $5 debit surcharge to the foreclosure fiasco. And at a time when clear communications and leadership was required, he stumbled, most notably when causing an uproar over his excuse that BofA has a "right to make a profit." You know you're in trouble when you're on a list of CEOs who need to be fired. Business leaders can’t ‘talk’ transparency – they have to live it, and communicate it. Although the returns aren’t in yet, Brian Moynihan has a long way to go to talk straight to re-establish trust with his customers and right the bank that so many feel wronged by.

7. Greg Mortensen - Three Cups of Deceit.

Communications built up the reputation and wallet of this author of the best selling “Three Cups of Tea”. He leveraged that success and began receiving high priced fees for keynote speaking. He actually wasn’t bad – and had a great message to tell about his humanitarian aid for Pakistan women. But that confidence and forward lean style disappeared when he was exposed by "60 Minutes" -  to have lied, and possibly misused charitable funds. Nowhere is guilt more apparent in communicating style than in this clip where he is confronted by a 60 minutes reporter – it’s not just that he is caught off guard, it is his lack of eye communication, hesitation as well as subsequent behavior that shouts "guilty.” He was asked to resign, and this was followed up by an acquaintance writing the book "Three Cups of Deceit" that is outselling the best seller. Character and integrity are the base for the tripod of good communications.

8. The Commissioners: Selig, Goodell and Stern - where leadership requires powerful communicators.

For missing the leadership opportunities in the NBA, NFL and MLB we might dub them the three blind mice – but certainly not the three wise men. Although it wasn’t entirely the fault of David Stern, the NBA Commissioner helped the league lose a couple of months of their multi-billion dollar season this year. Under Bud Selig Major League Baseball lost hundreds of millions in one of the most devastating strikes of any league several years ago. We have no giants at the helm of the big three professional sports leagues  - remember Pete Rozell, Ford Frick, Larry O’brien and Peter Ueberoth, to name a few. They were leaders who communicated, where now we have Roger Goodell of the NFL - he holds himself so meekly we rarely hear of him, but at least he averted a strike. David Stern has been here since 1984 – he's been around the longest and may be the most offensive communication wise with his arrogance - holds his head high, pompously. Ironically, the healthiest league now is under the worst speaker of the three, Bud Selig, who was #4 on our Worst Communicators list in 2007. He tends to articulate as if his mouth is full of grapes. The Commissioners lead big strong athletes, and they need to be big, strong communicators.

9. Leo Apotheker - a bull in a china shop.

When one of the three key reasons you’re fired as CEO is bad communication, you’re going to make our list. Apotheker was known for going his own way, not communicating a clear vision for HP, not getting consensus and buy-in of his executive board, and standing at the helm as HP’s stock lost nearly half it’s value. The real nail in the coffin may have been his flopped August 18 announcement that HP would kill the Touch Pad and spin off the PC unit, a message that was unclear internally at HP and certainly to customers. Communicating both internally with boards and staff and externally with vision and promise is essential to great leadership. Apotheker fell short and lost a huge opportunity. You can’t be a bull in a china shop without crashing a lot of plates.

10. President Barack Obama - needing to communicate to unite.

The President always appears on the list – sometimes best, sometimes worst – but the bully pulpit is so powerful in America that the communication style and impact of the President has influence far beyond the issues. So it is this year – as Obama, who once led the Best list in 2008, now is the best of the worst. We've often blogged on Obama's failure as a communicator. Here it is not so much deception as evasion – where the promise of Change and Hope was trumpeted from his Bully Pulpit so forcefully that everyone believed. No longer – as leadership from the White House, and from Congress as well, has stalled. Instead of a Presidential vision and message we have political maneuvering and name calling. When we need uniting, we hear dividing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics of the name calling isn’t the point – the learning is that when in a position of power, a leader must trumpet a direction in spite of the circumstances. (And not use a teleprompter to do it.)

26 thoughts on “The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2011
  1. Great list! Total agreement with Steve Jobs on the top. Hoping others who come along do not simply try to imitate him, but to emulate. His style and delivery was mesmerizing, effective, and clear. Much to learn from all these on the list – the good and bad.

  2. Thanks all. And Lisa, Lady Gaga is in because she is so unusual in ‘big rock star who can speak really well.’ That, and we all should have more creativity in our communications. We try to get a teaching point from each of those who make the list – for good or bad.

  3. After hearing Jeff Bezos speak on multiple occasions, I would have him in my top ten. The reason is his strategic vision and his ability to clearly articulate it. He is showing the world how retailer should think by putting the customer first in everything that they do.

  4. Illuminating list. I’m pleased with the inclusion of Virginia and Christine. It’s no mistake they are among your favorites – and mine. Thanks for giving us a reminder of what can be done well and what shouldn’t ever be seen in public. I hope to be at least as half as good as any of your top-10 best.

  5. Great lists this year. I definitely agree on Steve Jobs. He was a master of presentations. I don’t know if the Apple roll-outs will be the same without him. One person that really changed my life this year with his Ted speech was Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle. He is not only a powerful speaker, but he has discovered a unique secret… the power of WHY. A must see…

  6. Thanks all for the posts, feedback and ideas. Some responses below:
    Andy – I like the Netflix angle, and they actually got into the conversation. We’re sensitive to letting one gaffe put them in there and Reed Hastings has been good in the past and it will be fun/interesting to see the bounce back from that poor messaging effort.
    Lance – Couldn’t argue with the Jeff Bezos comment. We’ve worked with Werner (CTO) a bit, and Jeff has done a great job with vision and direction – Shultz just stood about a bit more this year. We’ll keep an eye out for Jeff in 2012!
    Kerry – Love that you appreciated the women in the top ten. I especially like the teaching points from those two.
    Fred – We always appreciate your feedback and posts, thank you!
    John – Not aware of Simon Sinek, but will explore and find him on Ted. Thanks for the heads up!
    Thanks for the posts – and let’s keep the conversation going…

  7. The team who devised both lists showed great insight into what can make a leader. Always comes down to your ability to be an effective speaker.Most , if not all the people named are clever, but many don’t take the trouble or see the need to hone their speaking skills.

  8. Bert,
    Excellent list.
    Steve Jobs = Passion, honesty, transperancy, intellect, optimism and the ability to articulate a vision. All attributes of a good leader and essential for an effective communicator.

  9. Thanks so much for including me. Your lists are very educational. I did not know most on the Worst list. I was wondering why you did not include Herman Cain on the Best Communicator List. He even made Barbara Walter’s Most Interesting People of the Year. The one thing people liked about Cain was his plain talk. Even tho he failed, I have not heard one person say they did not like him.

  10. Wow i quite disagree with most of this communicators..whatever they are above all people who were ‘politically correct’ against others who were not..Charlie Sheen was maybe on of the best with his tweeter record or how people went on his improvisation ‘tour’ (who was a failure only by the medias lying account) and his ‘trying’ a come back..hello he has a new show and makes movies again, by the way his ‘winning’ gimmick is now a catchphrase all over the world, take notes actually com people it is how to spring a word..Christine Lagarde is a joke (and i am a french and know what i am talking about..unlike you) DSK for all his other ‘personal’ troubles and mistakes was so much more competent, smart and effective in this job.
    The only real believable choices on this silly list is are Jobs and Christie.
    Bad jobs guys, no wonder lot’s of us despise you.

  11. Although I am quite torn, I must say that this is a great list! I cannot agree more with your top honors selection of Steve Jobs. On the contrary, I cannot disagree with you more on your “best of the worst” selection of our President. I guess that is exactly what makes this list so great…I love it and hate it at the same time! 🙂
    Special thanks to this morning’s mention of your list in USA Today Mobile.

  12. Obama should be dead last. His ability to fool over half of Americans and his inability to deliver on said promises.
    I couldn’t think of a larger disaster bestowed upon America than him.

  13. All – thanks for your posts and your willingness to agree and/or disagree. That’s what we love about this list, it will evoke emotion. Hopefully you see the teaching point in each one, where sometimes it’s hard to remove personal feelings. We at Decker sometimes have that same challenge when compiling this list, and feel very good that personal bias is removed.
    Pauline – no one wants to be despised, yet thanks for reading anyway. Not sure I’ll be able to convince you otherwise in this post. Here some other responses:
    Karl – Andy Stanley is great, watched iMarriage and won’t argue with you.
    Marlene – thanks for your insight
    Curtis – Passion is key – definite theme in almost all
    Gaye – Cain was in discussion, just didn’t make it
    Curtis – Suppose that’s an ideal response! Thanks. 😉
    Corey – The president will probably always be on best or worst. Interesting to see next year!
    Sean – thanks for your comments.
    Keep it going all! There has been some great press coverage which is helpful for people to continue thinking about why some are good vs. not so good.

  14. Thoughtful list Bert.
    I admire Chris Anderson’s (#3 of the best) speaking style and his ability to connect with his audience because of his transparent sincerity. A few times, post TED talk, he has spoken to the presenter to tease out what has not been the a clear presentation and executed his mastery like a true communicator.
    I will miss Andy Rooney who always made me chuckle and think – didn’t always agree but he got me considering how others may view issues/situations.
    Good to see three women in the best category – love seeing more women on the lectern/at the podium. Christine Lagarde simply sparkles when she presents.
    Agree with your analysis of Obama, who has been a disappointment. His pre-election message was delivered with such power and so compelling. As President his vision has diminished to teleprompter banality.
    Thanks for the insight!

  15. Would you care to explain this on google refering to this website:
    “14 Dec 2011 – Posts Tagged With: “Greg Mortensen” …. up outrage when claiming his Twitter account was hacked by someone else showing his lewd photos.” So, was his Twitter account hacked? Yes or No? Why does it show up on Google, but not under his photo in the text, nor in any of the comments.
    The truth will be coming out over the next weeks and months, and believe it when I tell you whatever mismanagement of funds Mortenson may have done is not criminal, but hacking into email accounts and Twitter accounts are.
    You have got the wrong bad guy. Look where the other three fingers are pointing.

  16. Good list, and well supported nominations. Here’s another “rock star who is considered a freak by many but is an amazing communicator”: Marilyn Manson. Listen to an interview with him some time: the man is lucid and profound! I’m not particularly keen on his music, and can’t stomach his stage performance, but as a communicator, he’s exemplary.

  17. Steve jobs – average speaker but simplistic as his minimalism design philosophy – it’s only the psychological cult effect altering the perception of the speech. A transference of emotions generated by Apple’s products.
    And many of those silly Americans want to vote in a president like he is the magic bullet and can instantly change the huge problems that the citizens have created over many years.

  18. Greetings! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had problems with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be awesome if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

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