The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2012

The 17th Annual Top Ten Communicators List features noteworthy successes and failures - reminding us that strong communication skills are essential. Punctuated by the summer Olympics and the election, 2012 featured many messages to rally support. Another key theme of this year was technology, with respect to both industry leadership and the various platforms used for communication. From business to politics to pop-culture and the space in between, here's the list:

The 10 Best

The Top 10 Best mastered the art of connecting with their audience. Their behaviors exude passion and energy, and they deliver a consistent and credible message.

1. Michelle Obama – First Lady Also Reaches First on Our List

Michelle Obama #1 - Decker Top Ten - Photo Credit: White House

First Lady Michelle Obama consistently communicates to influence. In the way that (then) Senator Barack Obama won our #1 spot (in 2006 and again in 2008), Michelle Obama captures her audience by being articulate, down to earth, informal and humble. She did not pick up the bad habits that plummeted her husband from the top of our list, remaining steady with and without a teleprompter. At the Democratic National Convention, she opened with personal stories like this one, that hooked viewers immediately - exposing vulnerability while relating to her audience. Her energy, emotion and eye communication stayed high throughout, including her final, emotional call to action. Even when she appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, she was able to make it about something. Michelle Obama remains clear and composed, exhibiting ultimate command of both presence and message.

2. Marco Rubio – Not The First (Nor Last) Time As A ‘Best Speaker’

Marco Rubio #2 - Photo Credit: AP

Though only an elected Senator for a few months, there was a reason Marco Rubio was mentioned early and often as a potential Presidential candidate. He is a master communicator. (He’s moved up from #5 in 2010.) In both behavior and message he is confident, authentic – and impressive, as we rated him Best Speaker in February at CPAC. A son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio speaks of this hot issue personally and eloquently – once giving an immigration speech in 2 languages (starting in Spanish, then using humor to switch to English). He relates – and in his 2012 RNC speech he was able to hook his audience with a story about his parents’ home country of Cuba, and keeping a clear point of view through to the end. Senator Rubio communicates likability and authenticity in his writing too, with his memoir, An American Son. On his book tour, he openly discussed his own issues of work-life balance with Barbara Walters on The View – relating to his audience, conveying sincerity, likability.

3. Missy Franklin – Genuine Gold

Missy Franklin #3 - Photo Credit: AP

We knew she could swim, but Missy Franklin really won our hearts with her communicating.  This Olympian’s unabashed smile defines her, yet she carries a confidence rarely seen in seventeen year olds. We use the term ‘humble confidence’ in our coaching, and she’s a prime example of it, not unlike Buster Posey (who made our list in 2010). Franklin’s personality shines in the Call Me Maybe spoof she organized for the entire swim team - it had over 10 million hits. She is already a pro at interviews – but never as great as after winning the gold in the 100M backstroke - her poolside interview (at 3:19) showed her emotion and depth as she said how important it was for her parents to see her victory. An audience can sense real vs. fake – and Missy is as real as it gets. These are the athletes we want our kids to have as role models.

4. Ryan Seacrest –  A Personality We Can’t Avoid (or Get Enough)

Ryan Seacrest #4 - Photo Credit: AP

Considered the hardest working man in Hollywood, he’s been on our radar as a Top Ten communicator for years - and we think it’s his time. Sure Seacrest’s looks and wit help him host and lead everything from his radio show (here with Gangnam Style’s Psy) to American Idol to the Emmys – but it’s his energy and enthusiasm that we’d like to emulate. I’m not sure someone like Seacrest knows how to have a monotone or flat voice - he brings life to everything he touches. His willingness to be self deprecating and open in a world of Hollywood image makes him so much more likeable and connecting with any audience. Be prepared to see even more of Ryan Seacrest, if that’s even possible!

5. Cory Booker –The Super-Social Super-Mayor

Cory Booker #5 - Photo Credit: AP

Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker regularly communicates well, above and beyond press conferences and traditional media interviews. (Of course, he does those, too.) With a smile that lights up his face, excitement in his eyes, energy in his gestures – Booker embodies affect. His constant use of humor, emotion and stories enable him to relate to people. This likability, coupled with a crisp message, propelled him to the national stage during the 2012 election season. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Booker used Twitter to communicate with his constituents via mobile when power was lost. He even invited them to his home to charge their electronic devices and watch movies. We’re following closely Cory Booker’s next steps, on social media and beyond, though he’s said he only wants to keep being the mayor of Newark. And to keep on communicating.

6. Sheryl Sandberg – The Game Changer

Sheryl Sandberg #6 - Photo Credit: AP

A role model as an executive, social media champion, IPO genius, Sheryl Sandberg is above all a communicator. She is the influential COO of Facebook, who gave the social media giant the credibility it needed to execute one of the most hyped IPOs of the past decade. Sandberg translates tech speak for the rest of us with her commanding use of stories and analogies. With confidence and certainty she communicates with an unmistakable lightness, but it’s her relevance and messaging that makes her so effective. Whether talking about a Facebook expansion, energy or job creation, Sandberg keeps her messages simple, concrete and credible. A prominent champion of women in the workplace and throughout the world, Sandberg’s soapbox has become the new normal throughout Silicon Valley.

7. Bill Clinton – Nobody Does It Better

President Bill Clinton #7 - Photo Credit: AP

He treats prepared text “the way jazz greats soar from the sheet music.” President Clinton’s improvisations are the stuff of legend. He “improvised 20% of his very first State of the Union address and explained his health-care plan from memory to a joint session of Congress after the teleprompter displayed the text of an earlier speech.” No one does it better. He proved it again at this year’s Democratic National Convention where he nearly doubled the number of words in his prepared speech. The best part? Every aside, anecdote and additional detail was intentional - creating the kind of communications experience to rally the herd (including the undecided) and the cause. Because of this rare skill, he is on our list again, and continues to be the envy of speakers everywhere.

8. Steven Colbert & John Stewart – The Communicating Kings Of Comedy

Steven Colbert & John Stewart #8

Humor - powerful in the best communicating. Colbert and Stewart took it to another level in this political year, earning a spot in the Top Ten. Putting politics aside (which of course they don’t), Colbert and Stewart collaborated to simplify the extremely convoluted details and regulations of campaign finance policy and Super PACs, among other things. Comedy Central’s two humor geniuses are naturally energetic, quick of tongue and wit, and they team up brilliantly to produce a series of concrete, clear, engaging sketches. Instead of attacking the same old sound bytes like news stations, they dive deep into the rules and regulations to educate the audience on the realities of campaign finance law and loopholes, at least from their perspective. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, their hilarious visual aids, coupled with their signature blend of unexpected moments make them memorable communicators, and funny.

9. Jack Dorsey –  Simplifying To Influence

Jack Dorsey #9 - Photo Credit: AP

Identified as one of the Innovators of the Year (in addition one of the Sexiest CEOs Alive),  Jack Dorsey co-founded Twitter and Square - and is also one of the year’s most effective communicators. After all, Square didn’t receive $200 million in venture funding or a partnership with Starbucks on its own. As an entrepreneur, he has set out to simplify complexity – and he can speak about what that means in a simple, concrete way. Masterfully usingstories and analogies to connect to his audience, Dorsey comfortably moves and gestures on the stage and uses effective visuals. He gets ideas from all around the company, encourages his team to show rather than tell when it comes to big ideas, and understands how to speak to the common denominator - all key traits for good communicators.

10. Marissa Mayer  –  Breaking The Mold

Marissa Mayer #10 - Photo Credit: AP

Marissa Mayer was elected CEO of Yahoo because she’s an elite engineer, tech innovator and a leader. The fact that she was 37 years old and 7 months pregnant may have surprised a lot of people, but not when they see or hear her. She is bright in both smile and intellect, likable, and a great communicator. While Mayer credits her early tech success to the fact that she was gender blind, a personal story she tells with humor, she’s led by a passion that exemplifies determination that gets people to buy in and follow. Aligning her position as CEO at Yahoo with legendary coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers at Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women of the Year dinner, she keeps it simple to make a point. It’s her results that get noticed - and you can’t deny that it’s through her communication.

The 10 Worst

The Top 10 Worst nailed the key communication don’ts: veering away from problems instead of dealing with them head-on, showing arrogance, lacking humility, and failing to deliver when key opportunities arise.

1. Francesco Schettino - Just Unbelievable

Captain Francesco Schettino #1 - Photo Credit: AP

In the midst of catastrophe, leaders step up to communicate. Or don’t. (See our 2010 list.) Captain Francesco Schettino of the grounded Costa Concordia stepped back, and went silent. Because he navigated too close to the rocks, 32 people died from the shipwreck this past January. And his communication behaviors when he finally spoke were as bad as his actions. In the midst of the crisis, when the ship was filling with water, he and his crew told passengers to go back to their rooms. After 20 minutes of blackout, the coastguard had to call him. He had abandoned the ship, saying that he tripped and fell into a passenger lifeboat. When the tapes from the black box to the coast guard were released, they revealed that Schettino did not communicate as either listener or speaker. Schettino currently is under investigation, is trying to get a book deal and remains defiant, ducking every opportunity for responsibility.

2. Todd Aiken & Richard Mourdock – Serious, Sad, and Stupid

Todd Aiken #2 - Photo Credit: AP Richard Mourdock #2 - Photo Credit: AP

Though there’s a fine line between candor and closed, politics gives a good example of where you have to be cautious - you can lose elections, and careers, with one misstep. This year two prime examples of putting their feet in their mouths are Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock. Both were running for office on strong platforms, yet their miscues ran them right off their platforms. In Aiken’s case, his remarks about “legitimate rape” were polarizing and powerful enough to completely derail his message, as well as his bid for the US Senate. In the case of Mourdock, who was running for Senate in Indiana, he actually went too far (if he wanted to get elected) in staking out his claim of God intending rape to happen. Both tried to recant, but slowly, defensively and with qualifications. The lesson for all - when you lay an egg, admit it fully, clean it up completely, and only then can you move on.

3. Bashar Al-Assad - What Communications Can’t Cover Up

Bashar Al-Assad #3 - Photo Credit: AP

Actions and words must be in sync, otherwise the disconnect of communications makes the speaker laughable. There’s not much to make light of in the actions of Bashar Al-Assad, the President of Syria. Early on Barbara Walters had a telling interview with Assad, which forebode the future. What is incredible are the many words and principles he espouses in most of his interviews (like this one) contrasted with the terrible actions taking place in his country by his government. He actually speaks fairly well, although there are some telltale eye darts and non-words that undermine the actual words. But whenever you see Assad, the fact that he doesn’t walk his talk is paramount in his believability. Which is low, and getting lower.

4. John McAfee – Killing His Own Credibility

John McAfee #4 - Photo Credit: AP

As you’ve seen on our list for the past few years, erratic attention grabbing does not make for effective communication – no matter if it’s serious or stunty (Charlie Sheen #3 on this list in 2011 and Mel Gibson #5 on the list in 2010). Taking the limelight this year is antivirus software pioneer John McAfee. When Belizean authorities sought McAfee for questioning (as a person of interest) in the murder of his neighbor, the tycoon went into hiding. McAfee communicated by blog and went to elaborate lengths to speak with American media, ranting and rambling in various phone interviews, and directing reporters to secret locations, while avoiding US and Belizean government entities. His behavior? Eccentric. His message? Confusing, not credible.

5. Hope Solo – Too Much ‘Tude

Hope Solo #5 - Photo Credit: AP

The gold medal-winning goal keeper from the US National Soccer Team makes our Worst list despite the fact that she is a confident communicator, with steady voice and good eye contact. Due to Hope Solo's displayed arrogance and the drama that follows her - she’s just not liked. It’s a missed opportunity for her. She has success and accomplishments - and she could have so much more if she communicated effectively. So what’s she really missing? Humility. Solo is a prime example that when you show the audience that you don’t care much about them - they won’t care much about you.

6. Joe Biden - Over The Top

Joe Biden #6 - Photo Credit: White House

So in this Presidential election year, all four candidates had their moments. But VP Joe Biden was the only one who consistently veered to one side – the worst. Yes he’s affable, and he smiles – both admirable communication assets. But not when done so often, and so inappropriately.  The VP debate was a classic example of how not to listen. Then there’s the content – speaking without thinking is dangerous, particularly when there is very little space between thought and word. Biden is known for his gaffes (here’s 10 of them), but they just keep on coming. And the Vice President just keeps on going, smiling and talking. Just not very credibly or powerfully.

7. Mark Pincus – Unlikeable, Unreachable & Unrelatable

Mark Pincus #7 - Photo Credit: AP

Likability is critical to communications (as Bert Decker says in You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard), and Zynga’s CEO and Founder Mark Pincus doesn’t have it. There’s a lesson here, as he made the list because his weak visual cues destroy his message. His body language distracts from his words. Arms crossed, smug smile – even his tone is condescending. Pincus comes across as arrogant and aloof, with eyes darting away as if there’s somewhere he’d rather be. It’s hard to connect to him. Another communication woe that plagues Pincus? Jargon, jargon, jargon. He has trouble articulating his thoughts in a way that is sequential or easy for people to digest. When a company's stock is crashing, management team "departures become rote" and employees are laid off (in this letter), but the CEO is profiting handsomely - something’s wrong. His communication goes a long way in destroying his credibility.

8. Ryan Lochte – The Hunk Who’s Hardly Humble

Ryan Lochte #8 - Photo Credit: AP

Talented? Yes. Lots of media attention and accomplishments? Sure. But Ryan Lochte comes off as indifferent and inauthentic. One reason? His monotone voice. Another reason? All of his non-words  - the “um’s” and “uh’s” that make him sound like he has no idea what he’s talking about. He sometimes omits words when he is speaking, he just doesn’t communicate like a role model. While the media was begging for a replacement for Michael Phelps - not that Phelps is that great as a communicator - Lochte just didn’t deliver. Marketers may have gotten what they wanted in a poster, but not with his words. With such talent and looks - this is also a missed opportunity. His aloofness and low affect (spoofed here on SNL) doesn’t allow him to be the complete package for endorsing and representing brands, so his swimming and looks will have to carry him, unless he changes his communication style.

9. David Axelrod – Master of Spin

David Axelrod #9 - Photo Credit: White House

There were a lot of spinmeisters during this political year, but maybe none as incredible as Obama’s spokesman David Axelrod. After the first presidential debate, it was widely concluded that Mitt Romney won (largely because behavior reigns). During his post-debate Q&A, Axelrod just would not address President Obama’s communications presence at the debate. While his candidate was being criticized for his behavior, we reproach Axelrod for both his jerky behavior AND his content. At Decker, we advocate a technique of taking the spotlight off of you during a tough round of questions – but Axelrod took this to the extreme. Not only did it detract from his message, Axelrod was so eager to get his point across that he came off as argumentative and defensive, rather than relating to the reporters and their audiences. Always spinning is not good communicating.

10. Scott Forstall – Failure To Launch

Scott Forstall #10 - Photo Credit: AP

Kenny Rogers had it right in his song ‘The Gambler.’ Ex-Apple Exec Scott Forstall didn’t know when to fold ‘em, and it wasn’t just his failure with the Apple Maps App. His biggest communication flaw was with his co-workers, for ‘Forstall was notoriously hard to get along with…’ Of course it didn’t help that he refused to sign an apology for the bad app – which was probably the final straw for CEO Tim Cook. Forstall may have been a brilliant software designer, but he was a poor communicator, especially off the stage. And he never grasped that if you are going to connect at a high level inside and outside, you have to understand what people need and want. (Particularly your boss.)


5 thoughts on “The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2012
  1. Great list. I’m not the authority on communication skills and techniques that you are, but it seems right on. Curiously, whenever I think of Bill Clinton – whom I agree, has superb communications skills – I think of a man that can lie to your face so convincingly you would thank him for it.
    And the Biden smile – reminds me of Joel Osteen. I never trust anyone that smiles that much. Must be hiding something!

  2. Bert, good job with most of this year’s list. Only 2 questions. One, why so many west coast people on the list? The US is a big country. Two, how could you leave John Boehner, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi off the 10 Worst list? They are three of the worst communicators I’ve ever seen. Thanks again, and a very Merry Christmas to you.

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