From the power of care and rapport to the sexy baby voice, what can we learn from the new breed leadership sweeping through business, pop culture, politics and sports? Each of the people on the 20th annual list of Top Ten Best and Worst Communicators of 2015 can teach us a lesson.
Top 10 Best Communicators
Warm, confident and approachable, these accessible leaders inspire us. They serve extraordinary ideas in a way that is easy to digest, understand and take action upon. The best communicators of 2015 connect with likability, humility, confidence and a focus on their audience.
1. Kat Cole – If You Don’t Know Her Yet, You Will
Kat Cole’s light is shining, and it is burning brighter and brighter. She is #1 on our list because she has united both her communications and her story in an amazing way. Here’s a little background if you haven’t seen her. She is now moving fast, from a “Jerry Springer Upbringing” (her words, not ours) to working her way up at Hooters to VP level, then becoming CEO of Cinnabon and now the group president of Focus Brands, Inc. Here’s another view. You can see why she has gone from rags to riches, thanks to the power of communication—now that’s inspiring! But Cole’s story doesn’t stop there. When it comes to navigating the Communicator’s Roadmap, Kat Cole consistently lands herself in the Inspire quadrant. She speaks with the kind of authority and conviction that makes you want to listen (and makes her score high on emotional connection). Her lightness is proof that you don’t have to have a serious face to be taken seriously. Combining this warmth with credibility, Kat Cole consistently demonstrates the kind of executive presence that gets results—and not just in the form of promotions. She inspires others to dream big and make a difference.
2. Misty Copeland – Communicating En Pointe
Ballet may not be a spoken art form, but America Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer Misty Copeland communicates her Point of View about gratitude every day. She reminds us that we all have a story to tell, and when we deliver that story with authenticity, we can motivate and inspire. Strong eye communication and incredible facial lightness help listeners connect to her story — both on stage and off. Though sometimes a bit soft-spoken, she reminds us that our accomplishments can’t speak for themselves. We have to tell our stories, and Copeland’s story inspires us. Her killer combo of grit and joy pirouetted her right onto the list this year. As a communicator, Misty Copeland is en pointe.
3. Marco Rubio – The Smart, Quick Connector
Marco Rubio is back on our list (from 2012 and 2010), and for good reason. He’s a direct communicator who is strong in emotional connection. In a political climate where he who yells loudest gets the most coverage, Rubio’s warmth and plainspokenness cut through the noise and resonate with voters. He answers in a clear, concise way (here at 1:14), without the rambling or hyperbole that many politicians use. Likability matters — in politics and in business — and he’s got it in spades. The biggest complaint about Rubio is that he drinks a lot of water. He’s acknowledged it as a weakness, and hopefully he doesn’t use it as a crutch. Will his strong communication skills earn him a 2016 Presidential nomination? We’ll be watching to find out.
4. Justin Trudeau – More Person than Politician
Canada’s new Prime Minister has convinced Canadians to care about politics again. He is real, authentic and warm. More person than politician, admitting what he doesn’t know and conveying empathy helped Justin Trudeau outshine his predecessor. In a similar way that Obama’s great communicating in big speeches at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and the “Yes we can” rhetoric of 2008 shifted the political tide in the U.S. toward hope and change, Trudeau has a fresh approach and a magnetism you can’t help but feel. Now that’s darn strong communicating. With a dynamic voice, a vocal punch, lightness in his face and an expression that shows he cares, Trudeau connects with people. We love his forward lean — and we can’t wait to see the impact he brings to Canada and the world scene.
5. Doug McMillon – The New Breed of CEO
Budding leaders, take note: trust is earned not solely from authority but from connection and care. Doug McMillon embodies a new brand of leadership that is intentional about using communication as an opportunity to inspire and connect to the bigger picture. Wal-Mart’s youngest CEO (since founder Sam Walton) doesn’t come across as an efficiency-crazed bottom-line guy. Instead, he communicates care about his employees, his consumers and society. He tackles social issues, like minimum wage and work-life balance, speaking clearly and directly to his audience. McMillon’s emotive facial expressions, raised eyebrows and lightness in his cheeks enable him to come across as warm, humble and approachable. He’s particularly good in interviews (demonstrating the impact of media training), staying calm and focused even when hammered with hostile questions. Our goal is for more CEO’s on the Fortune list to communicate like McMillon.
6. Sal Khan – Conquering the Curse of Knowledge
We might be late to the party with Sal Khan, as he’s been impressive for the last several years. He’s been changing the world and changing the status quo of learning. In short, he makes learning more interactive, accessible and fun. How? His passion and care enrapture his audience. What started as one math video tutorial in 2004 erupted into the Khan Academy, where you can learn almost anything — from chemistry to art history. And he even opened a physical Khan Lab School to explore new best practices for learning. Since he’s a former hedge fund analyst with three Ivy League degrees, you might expect him to use a high-brow vocabulary and esoteric language. Instead, he engages with simple, concrete SHARPs, like this analogy about education being like celebrity clothing. It’s not just the content that packs the “wow” factor. Khan holds the attention of his audience with his energy, passion and vocal variety. He gets people (children and adults, alike) actively engaged and involved, making complexities more simple and easier to understand.
7. Tina Fey & Amy Poehler – The Power of Rapport
Some things are better together, like chocolate and peanut butter or wine and cheese, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler show the power of rapport. From their early days on Saturday Night Live to recent stints hosting the Golden Globes, what makes this “womance” special is their mutual respect, and their ability to “yes, and…” each other consistently. They stay present, they listen, and they are able to communicate with the right balance of humor. They’re not gratuitous, and they don’t take it too far. They have extraordinarily high emotional connection, with each other and their audience, along with the big smiles and strong body language we expect from such seasoned entertainers. It’s not just entertaining, either. They inspire beyond their comedic talent in organizations like the Worldwide Orphan’s Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Amy’s Smart Girls.
8. Stephen Curry – Now That’s Humble Confidence
While handling a basketball like Steph Curry won’t be a reality for most of us, we can aim to handle our next communication experience like he does — with the perfect balance of humility and confidence. That’s what inspires us about him. His words are simple, and his plainspoken leadership is respectful. The result? Steph has a completely different leadership style than other dismissive all-stars who see themselves as the greatest (ahem, LeBron James). He is a servant leader vs. a one-man-show, and it allows others to learn and shine. Steph proves that you don’t have to be the loudest to be the most effective — an important lesson for all athletes, team players and executives, alike. We’d be honored to sit on this MVP’s bench or cheer for any team he’s on (and we’ll happily forgive him for his “um” habit).
9. Neil deGrasse Tyson – A Standout, Scientifically Speaking
Only a limited subset of the population would sign up to listen to an astrophysicist speak — unless that scientist is Neil deGrasse Tyson. That’s because he doesn’t just inform us, he entertains and inspires us. This rockstar astrophysicist has made science cool and approachable — due in large part to his communication style. His warmth, incredible vocal variety and enthusiasm immediately connect with viewers. His pauses are purposeful, his gestures add impact, and best of all, he finds a way to make complicated science interesting and easy to understand. We wish all the executives we coach were as passionate and plainspoken! From his late-night talk show interviews with celebrities, to speeches about NASA and black holes, when Neil talks, we get sucked in. Astrophysics pun very much intended.
10. Elizabeth Gilbert – Create, Motivate, Inspire
Many people know her as the author of the insanely successful book Eat, Pray, Love, but these days, it’s more like Create, Motivate, Inspire. Elizabeth Gilbert rounds out our list because of her ability to inspire others to action. Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic has a bold Point of View about creative living beyond fear. Yet, she inspires not only “creatives,” but everyone to live the lives they want, to pursue their goals, and to be unafraid of following their curiosity — even when it’s terrifying. Her empathy and compassion create a safe space for communicating about the hard stuff. She does it with a strong voice that shows quiet confidence while exhibiting a glint of passion through her facial expressions and gestures. And, like a favorite book, we could return to her often for wisdom and inspiration.
20th Anniversary Bonus: TheSkimm
There are many ways the spoken word relates to the written word. And that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to recognize our favorite millennial communication trend: TheSkimm. They write like people talk, putting big, complex world and national news into bite-sized, easy to read chunks (and that’s not easy to do). Instead of saying “dismissed,” they’d say, “swiped left,” and it resonates, especially for millennials (no surprise, their target audience). They balance their updates with smart humor that offers a burst of laugh-out-loud relief. Don’t you wish your boss or board spelled everything out so clearly? TheSkimm has created a whole new stream of content that is pithy, witty, direct, simple, concrete and engaging.
Top 10 Worst Communicators
Off-putting, insincere, self-motivated and full of nervous energy, the worst communicators of 2015 missed countless opportunities to win trust and build credibility. Poor communication skills failed this list, reminding us what communication tactics to avoid. Instead, we learn from their shortcomings.
1. Martin Shkreli – What Was He Thinking?
We always say content and behavior have to match for the most effective communicators. Well, for our #1 Worst of 2015 they do match—but both in the wrong direction. Arrogant and smug, Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals AG, landed on a lot of “worst” lists this year, and justifiably so for buying a company and then jacking up the price of a life-saving drug by 5000%. But even more, he tops our list not because of what he did, but because of his defensiveness and condescension in the way that he explained it initially, and then reneged on promises later. As a 32-year-old CEO under fire, he is already at a credibility disadvantage for mature judgment, and Shkreli multiplies it by his arrogance. He doesn’t engender any trust or empathy—something he sorely needs to regain the public’s favor. And how about some sympathy for those that need the drug—Shkreli displays none of it. Moreover, he shows no remorse for actually making people’s lives harder. He slouches, his nose seems to be in the air, his eyes dart and he speaks in a monotone voice. Perhaps the worst behavior of all is his awkward, insincere smile that makes Martin Shkreli one pill that won’t go down easy.
2. Michael Horn – Apologies Shouldn’t Require Notes
Like so many other worsts in Top 10 history, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America Michael Horn missed too many opportunities by relying on his script as a crutch. Scripts are the #1 killer of authenticity. Instead of conveying a sincere apology (about VW cheating on emissions tests), he left people under the impression that he is only sorry that Volkswagen got caught. He fell prey to White Lie #1, “If I say the words, people will get it,” even using his script for comments like, “I would like to offer a sincere apology.” Horn’s words say one thing, but he demonstrates another — without variety in his voice (monotone voice doesn’t convey that he cares), emotion on his face, and gestures that connect to his content. He could have changed the experience if he looked up instead of at his script. Apologies shouldn’t require notes. Instead, like so many before him (Tiger Woods and Chip Wilson leap to mind) they send an inconsistent message.
3. Kevin McCarthy – Malapropisms of Epic Proportions
The words you say actually do impact your credibility — even if you’re a big wig. The U.S. House Majority Leader is the king of malapropism, routinely making gaffes that hurt his credibility. (Vocab alert: Malapropism is when someone uses a word in place of a similar-sounding one.) Some of McCarthy’s gaffes include referencing his visit to the country of “Hungaria” instead of “Hungary,” saying, “If I look in history” instead of “If I look back at history” and “I would venture to guest,” instead of “I would venture to guess.” Bottom line: The basics absolutely make a difference. McCarthy doesn’t get a hall pass on diction, grammar and verb tenses — especially not in his role as a U.S. Congressman! Sure, malapropism might just be a nervous habit, but it completely destroys credibility.
4. Ann Coulter – Confrontational and Checked Out
Hostile, unlikable, argumentative … we could go on and on … much like Ann Coulter herself, the bloviating blonde who’s lost track of her message. She lands on the 2015 list because she’s not able to land a Point of View that actually resonates with her audience. Her recent book, Adios, America! has caused a lot of her supporters to say adios to her. It would be a challenge to plot her on the Communicator’s Roadmap because her message is beyond self-centered — it’s argumentative and repelling. Plus, Coulter’s behaviors are aggressive — specifically, she yells, darts her eyes and is anything but humble. The combination of these two (her content and behavior) can be like nails on a chalkboard.
5. John Boehner – Call to In-Action
He made this list — the Worst list — in 2012, and we didn’t expect him to hang around long enough to make the 2015 list. His legacy as Speaker of the House? Unable to drive action — on either side of the political aisle. Under his leadership, Congress saw its popularity plummet, as it struggled to complete basic legislative tasks. Boehner’s communication style is uninspiring, flat and boring. He is proof that informing is less effective than influencing. Oh, and one more thing to learn from Boehner — after watching him “listen” during the State of the Union, it should be a wake-up call for all of us to know how we come across as a listener. He looks miserable.
6. Justin Bieber – Sorry, So Self-Absorbed
Oh Justin Bieber… what have U done? The Bieber we see today is a far cry from the wunderkind who melted our hearts just a few years ago. This Biebs has lost all humility while feeding his ego. We know his poor communication isn’t hurting his success—musicians/celebrities can get away with a lot—but it’s the missed opportunity that lets us learn from him. He speaks in a monotone voice, showing he couldn’t care less and that conversations are beneath him, plus he’s got lots of filler words (“um,” “uh,” “you know” are his favorites). Looking back to some of the pop stars on previous lists, Bieber is on track to be more of an egocentric Kanye West than a grateful, audience-centric Taylor Swift or an articulate and sincere Lady Gaga, making him the poster child for bad communications.
7. Kim Kardashian – Ground Zero for Upspeak and Vocal Fry
Kim Kardashian shares a lot of herself with the world every day, but there’s one thing we wish she wouldn’t share: her terrible vocal habits. The epidemic of “sexy baby voice” has gone mainstream—even into the corporate world, and Kim and her siblings are leading the charge. For those not keeping up with the Kardashians, think upspeak, high-pitched voice, with a crackling fry sound at the ends of sentences like thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis. It’s hard to take her seriously when her sentences sound like questions. There’s no conviction in her statements when they end on a high note — even when discussing more serious topics such as her dedicated work with the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (with a teleprompter in that clip). Although some people find it cool not to care, the vocal fry Kardashian exemplifies comes across as apathetic and uninterested. Be careful not to pick up on these contagious vocal habits. Not only can they damage your credibility, but your vocal chords as well.
8. Sepp Blatter and The Bad Boys of FIFA – Whatcha Hiding?
There is so much blaming and finger pointing at the scandal ridden FIFA, it’s hard to know what’s happened or whom to blame. What IS clear is that better communication and a willingness to be forthright and open would have served the organization well in 2015. And because style and tone start from the top, we’re pointing a finger at FIFA president Sepp Blatter. His low affect and darty eyes lead us to mistrust him immediately. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or where you’re from, nobody is exempt from the behaviors of trust. Communications are global—something the head of a global organization should know by now.
9. John Koskinen – Disdain and Distrust
The need for trust in the leadership has never been greater, and the highest level of the IRS doesn’t give it to us. John Koskinen is IRS Commissioner, and you wonder how he lasted, much less how he leads. He’s one of our Worst Communicators for several reasons — but overriding all is his haughty and arrogant tone of voice so often paired with a look of disdain and distaste. Examples abound, starting with his first battles in Congressional Hearings last year, continuing throughout 2015 to this day. You would think he would learn with the negative reaction he has received. And content wise, he obfuscates, usually deflecting or defending. Often he stares at his listeners, as if he is making a great communicating connection. He’s not. This is one of the many reasons Koskinen is on our Worst list.
10. Dustin Johnson – Major Missed Opportunities
While he is always talked about for his athletic potential, it’s even hard for PGA Tour golfer Dustin Johnson to outshine his communication hiccups. In interviews, his low affect is disengaging. He misses the opportunity to connect with fans and win people over. On top of that, he gives vague answers and an unconvincing delivery filled with filler words such as, “ya know.” And that’s how he shows up for events. There’s plenty he’s showing by not showing up (like when he skipped the award ceremony after coming in second at the US Open). He’s always been an amazing golfer, and we just hope that some of that potential spills over into better communicating, as well.