The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2014

There is no such thing as private speaking, and Decker Communications’ 19th Annual Top Ten Best and Worst Communicators list proves it. These famous examples from business, politics, sports and pop culture have left indelible impressions this year – both for better and for worse.

Top 10 Best Communicators

Breaking out of the mold, the best communicators of 2014 stepped up to the plate (one of them did that, literally), authentically speaking from the heart and letting passion drive. Likable, consistent and remarkably humble, they consistently connected with their audiences.

1.  Robin Williams – Remember, You're Always On . . .

Robin Williams - Best Communicator of 2014

Robin Williams tops the best list this year because he epitomized a critical skill of all top communicators – spontaneity and the ability to live in the moment. And of course he was unique, funny, and deserving of in memoriam honors for his work. But above all – he was present. He took what came at him, and made it work, as in this interruption during a USO Show last year. He used his brilliant mind, as well as his body and props to add physical expression to his words, as in his breakthrough first appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, as well as its final broadcast. Even when he gave a prepared acceptance speech for his Oscar in 1998, he was able to add humor in the moment, stay on track and inspire people at the same time. We continuously coach executives and business people to lighten up, to use humor, and to be spontaneous – taking advantage of the ever-present unexpected. Though very few can be like Robin Williams, we all can strive to use him as inspiration for spontaneity and wit in all our communicating.

2.  Richard Branson – Mindful of the Experience

Richard Branson - Best Communicator

He asks questions, he openly loves learning, and he has built a reputation on innovation. Underlying all of this is the fact that Sir Richard Branson is just so darn likeable. In a world that judges quickly, he has that smile that immediately engages and draws his audience right in. We can’t help but get excited and get on-board with whatever he brings us. (No small feat – many of us struggle to bring a fraction of that lightness to business.) What we saw this year from Branson, though, is that he can also be serious – and take immediate action in a crisis. The best way to handle a crisis is immediately and head-on, and when Virgin Galactic had a plane crash, Branson quickly and empathetically addressed the situation – directly. He inspires us with his ideas – and the way he articulates them concretely (at 1:49). We wish we could work with him to eliminate some of those “ums” and “uhs” that distract from his experience. We also wish we could balance work and play as well as he does. 

3.  Wendy Clark – An Energizing Executive Refreshment

Wendy Clark - Best Communicator

Conversational, comfortable, connected and capable, Wendy Clark presents herself differently than most executives. (In fact, several notable leaders have come to us saying, I want to be more like her.) A senior marketing executive at Coca-Cola, Clark’s natural and funny opening may be a bit canned (see it here, and yes, pun intended), but she consistently comes to play in an authentic way, using tons of SHARPs, big gestures and concrete language. Whether she’s commanding from the stage or engaging one-on-one behind the scenes, her passion radiates. Even during a gratitude-filled acceptance speech, she tells a story, finding a way to share a point of view and make us think (even if she does read from time to time). A thought leader and champion for storytelling and innovation, she demonstrates the kind of executive presence we advocate, teach and admire.

4.  Derek Jeter – A New Yorker with Humble Confidence

Derek Jeter - Best Communicator

After a storied twenty-year career with the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter embodies all-American humble confidence. While we loved watching him on the field, he warmed our hearts and proved himself as a communicator when he took the mic on Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium – thankful, articulate and even humorous in front of a huge live and televised audience. The shortstop knew he wanted to be a Yankee at four years old, and he made it happen with a surprising lack of arrogance. When it came time to retire this year, all he could do was thank everyone else. Even earning the respect of his enemies, Jeter finished his career at Fenway Park in Boston – only taking pride in doing his job and playing every day that he could. Grateful to his parents, humble, well-mannered – this is the kind of role model we want for our kids. As we segue, enjoy Jeter’s interview with Jimmy Fallon.

5.  Jimmy Fallon – Taking Tonight To New Heights

Jimmy Fallon - Best Communicator

We’ve loved Jimmy Fallon since his Weekend Updates alongside Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, but watching him earn America’s ratings and trust during his first year at The Tonight Show has deservedly earned him a place among this year’s 10 Best rank. Viewers will invite you into their homes if they trust you—and Jimmy Fallon comes across as sincere, authentic, and trustworthy. Humble, engaging, and conversational, Fallon is an attentive and encouraging listener in interviews (watch how he leans in with a wide open expression – wanting the person sitting in the other chair to succeed). He used his nice-guy authenticity to win the audience, and it landed him on this list (as well as Entertainer of the Year).

6.  Adam Silver – Seriously Sticks to His Point 


Adam Silver

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is a brilliant communicator. He deftly handles Q&A, knows how to communicate a strong point of view, and he finds a way to bridge the needs of the owners with the desires of the fans. In keeping a strong listener focus (on the owners and the fans), he secured America’s trust and his own spot on this list with his “Sterling” press conference. His quick, concise, firm yet fair communication of the consequences applied to Donald Sterling (the worst communicator of 2014) was a great example of clear messaging (and what others have called a racial conscience). Moreover, his leadership is omnipresent, demonstrating how commissioners of pro leagues should hold every one of their respective franchise owners accountable. Articulate and accessible, Silver has found a way to make seriousness an asset in communicating.

7.  Lupita Nyong’o – Sincerity + Grace 

Lupita Nyong'o - Best Communicator

Lupita Nyong’o is proof that you don’t need to speak loudly or carry a big stick to command a space. But presence, alone, does not a communicator make. Nyong’o quickly rose from unknown to cover of Vogue, inspiring us with so many speeches this year, including her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards (as we referenced earlier this year), Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon and Essence Beauty Awards. Her behaviors make us believe her sincerity. Articulate and intentional, she uses strong SHARPs, excellent transitions, a steady voice and vulnerable reveals into her own experiences, hopes, empathy and emotion.  In interviews, she is just as steady, light, intentional and direct. Consumers flock to everything she touches, and analysts have dubbed it "the Lupita effect," though if you ask her, she simply says she is “planting the seed of possibility.” We look forward to watching her for many years to come.

8.  Kathy Murphy – Financial Pillar of Strength

Kathy Murphy - Best Communicator

Kathy Murphy, President, Fidelity Personal Investing, is a legend in the world of finance. Named one of Fortune’s most powerful women (eight years in a row), she manages a $1.7 trillion business with over 15 million customers and 12 thousand employees. She shakes off the stiff, scripted corporate speak by pairing polish with passion. Her conversational credibility comes from a naturally deep, authoritative voice that is full of expression, and a quick smile – a perfect blend of competence and warmth. Even in her content, Murphy is known for her straight talk and candor, sharing her own personal stories and experiences to fuel change in the financial services industry. And quickly. She is blazing a trail for women – not only future leaders, but also for her customers, identifying women as the most desirable target demographic. (Loved the message from her 2013 TEDx Talk). Demystifying and simplifying the financial world, she champions financial services education, ensuring that her 68-year old company stays relevant for up and coming investors.

9.  Taylor Swift – Incredible Audience Connection 

Taylor Swift - Best Communicator

With poise and accolades that exceed most 25 year olds, Taylor Swift has phenomenal customer-centricity. Swift’s lightness, enthusiasm and willingness to not take herself too seriously helps people connect with her. She puts herself in the audience’s shoes, always relating her own experiences to theirs. This is the number one thing we tell executives to do – consider the audience reaction, and it changes the entire experience. Swift’s focus on her customer led to her success. Always acknowledging and thanking her fans, she recognizes their commitment to her and thanks them for the chance to share her life. She knows that many of her fans see her as a big sister, so she shared her chart-topping album, 1989, with hundreds of fans in her living room. By focusing on the similarities instead of the differences, she connects and relates across all demographics, even landing the job of global ambassador for New York City.

10.  Tony Fadell – Best in the Nest

Tony Fadell - Best Communicator

Why are the smoke detectors the same as they’ve always been? They’re not going to be that way for long. The father of the iPod, Tony Fadell is the entrepreneur who landed back on the radar this year when Google bought Nest Labs, a company that designs and manufactures sensor-driven, Wi-Fi-enabled, programmable thermostats that track when you’re home and when you’re away. It’s smart technology, yes, and it requires great communicating. Fadell, CEO and founder of Nest Labs, knows that jargon is for “single, geeky guys,” and he boils it down for regular people: Families. He breaks down his crazy-smart-scientific-specialized knowledge into nuggets that we can understand, focusing the conversation on the benefits we want: Cost savings. We love getting to see him speak in front of a crowd (like this great clip from 2012) because he uses big gestures, vocal variety, pacing, lightness, movement and planting. Every time he shares a vision of changing the world, Fadell is communicating to influence 

Top 10 Worst Communicators

Arrogant, avoidant and oblivious to the consequences, the worst communicators of 2014 serve as reminders that we are all public speakers, whether to audiences of one or many, behind closed doors or beneath bright lights.

1.  Donald Sterling –  No Such Thing as “Private Speaking”

Donald Sterling - Worst Communicator

With the internet, the world is an open mic, as Donald Sterling knows so well. In our programs we emphasize that we all are public speakers, whether to audiences of one or many. And what you say always counts – as in this grossly racist conversation recorded between LA Clippers (ex) owner Sterling and his girlfriend V Stiviano. Similar to last year’s Paula Deen controversy, the media backlash was intense, and Sterling’s month-long silence didn’t help. He was ultimately banned from the NBA and lost the team. When he finally did apologize, he failed miserably by attacking Magic Johnson, and not exhibiting any humility or remorse. As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver - one of our Best this year – noted, his offensive comments were shocking and scathing, and lack of remorse by silence made the situation worse. Yup, there is no such thing as private speaking. His “private” comments were heard and judged, to his own travail.

2.  Chuck Hagel – No Defense

Chuck Hagel - Worst Communicator

Though he flew under the communications radar as a senator, Chuck Hagel leaped to exposure with his Congressional hearing for Secretary of Defense. He underwhelmed us with non-words, rambling comments and unfortunately, he always looks like he just woke up. And it got worse and worse when he was under pressure. In speech after speech, Hagel continued to reflect a low energy with ums and uhs not fitting for his role and position. Secretary Hagel might have been ousted for political reasons, but underlying it all was the fact that he never projected a confident and authoritative presence of a strong leader. Communication skills count.

3.  Michael Bay – The Walk Off

Michael Bay - Worst Communicator

It’s rare that a single episode can land someone on the Worst list, but Michael Bay had a massive disaster at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year. As a spokesman for Samsung, Bay and his teleprompter got out of sync. Nervously fishing for words and awkwardly fidgeting with his hands, he could not "wing it," even though he tried. Instead, the blockbuster director actually walked off the stage in embarrassment! Painful to watch but a good learning for all of us… you can never blame the teleprompter! Familiarize yourself enough with the focus of the message and the key points to support it. Then, when you lose your train of thought (and we all do), pause, think, and then continue. Even better? Use the thinking-on-your-feet skills that Robin Williams mastered to manage the experience.

4.  Roger Goodell – Blew It Again

Roger Goodell - Worst Communicator

Putting aside all the scandals involving the NFL and its players this year, we can easily pinpoint the fact that Roger Goodell is a lousy communicator. Yes, he’s been on the Worst Communicator list before, in 2011 for being meek and ineffective. But this year, with a slew of domestic violence issues, Goodell’s tactics were dismissive and tardy instead of action-oriented or timely. As the Wall Street Journal points out, for any corporate honcho looking to learn from this blunder, don’t use the NFL model of justice. And don’t communicate like Goodell. His emotionless, wooden speaking “performances” from which he typically reads from scripts generally seem insincere. The most emotion we saw from him all year was after he gave himself an ice bucket challenge. C’mon, Goodell. Step it up.

5.  Jill Abramson – Ousted Valley Talker

Jill Abramson

Many avid New York Times readers were shocked to hear that executive editor Jill Abramson, the paper’s first female editor, was abruptly fired. We were proud of her for revving up her vocal cords and quickly speaking out about it – until we actually heard her speak. For someone who is so well-written (and who can prepare powerful words, like she did for this commencement speech about resilience at Wake Forest), she is especially rough off the cuff and in free-flowing dialogue (like here with David Carr). Hear the difference between these two journalists in this interview with Abramson and Greta Van Susteren. Abramson’s upspeak and slurred cadence undermine her credibility, and her audience tunes out.

6.  Kanye West – The Center of His Universe

Kanye West

Arrogant, dismissive and self-absorbed, Kanye West makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is the most interesting person in his universe (we’re leaving his relationship with Kim Kardashian out of this). When West contributes to a conversation, his message always comes out as self-absorbed. What did he bring to this panel at Cannes Lions? A lot of fidgeting and self-focused (rather than listener-focused) rambling. Here in interview with Seth Myers, explaining that he could care less about the interviews, he just likes making history by being on the platform. Yeezus, Kanye. Take a slice of humble pie, and try to acknowledge someone outside of you in your universe.

7. Stephen A. Smith – Caricature Malfunctions

Stephen A. Smith

Sometimes being a caricature can help commentators excel – it gives them a personality, makes them more memorable. ESPN host Stephen A. Smith is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Rather than likable and endearing, his caricature is grating because he speaks so loudly and with a monotonous cadence that feels like he is beating issues, not discussing them. We’d love to know if he speaks this way all the time (like when he is at home with his family and close friends). The only thing we gain from his experience is arrogance, and it’s exacerbated by the way he pauses in between words, rather than in between sentences like he is holding court. The one touch of humility we saw this year, when he apologized after getting into a pickle, probably saved him from suspension. While we love someone who conveys a point of view with conviction, it would serve Smith well to add a conversational pitch and pace.

8.  Rikk Wilde – Set Up and Stuff

Rikk Wilde - Worst Communicator

Imagine you get called up to the big leagues. A big opportunity to speak to a ginormous audience – basically the biggest opportunity of your entire life. Then, the higher ups hand you a detail–laden script, and emphasize the importance of articulating everything on said script. Then, you get really nervous. You bring your notes. With bright lights and the camera rolling, you begin to sweat. Your voice shakes. This was Rikk Wilde, a zone manager for Chevrolet during the World Series MVP Presentation. The number of features he was asked to squeeze into a car key handover was so extreme, combined with his nerves, it led him to say, “technology and stuff,” instead of the actual features. Kudos to Chevy for spinning an excruciatingly embarrassing moment into a marketing opportunity after the fact, but it didn’t have to be that way from the start. In fact, Wilde is not to blame (and he endured a whole lot of finger-pointing in his direction). In this case, it was the handlers, those who "prepped" him with the script. The solution? Craft a couple of key points, and then embrace the moment and the excitement. What they should have told him was, “Have fun with this – you get to give away a car!” Don’t focus on all the specific words and particular features – remember that the communication experience is about way more than that.

9.  Richard Ledgett –  Lack of Credibility, Lost Our Trust

Richard Ledgett - Worst Communicator

What’s the quickest way to lose trust? Bad communication. NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett was amazingly counterproductive to helping the NSA earn America’s trust this year. Inconsistent behaviors (like saying, “thank you” and “happy to be here,” without showing a smile or lightness), boatloads of filler words (over 80 “um”s in this telepresence at TED), halting to think and get his thoughts together detract from his entire experience. Sure, we understand that regulations prohibited him from giving more detail on some aspects (just like many of our clients in industries like finance and health care have compliance and regulatory limitations). But Ledgett’s behavioral skills eroded all trust. Stiff as a board, he doesn’t show energy or humanity, with his monotone voice (at 21:10) and lack of facial expressions. What’s worse, his many telltale eye darts, urge the audience to wonder just what he is hiding.

10.  Barack Obama – Need a Wake Up Call

Barack Obama - Worst Communicator

When duty calls for the Commander in Chief to communicate and captivate, President Barack Obama hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion. With such a captivating oratory capacity (he has been on the best list in years past, and he was so engaging at the White House correspondents’ dinner, where he poked fun at himself and the media), we are disappointed to see Obama’s lack of authority and eye communication persist – even with the camera. This started years ago as a reliance on teleprompters, but lately, Obama closes his eyes for long periods of time, making it seem as if he is distant and uninterested. Combined with the lack of energy in his voice, his experience conveys that he is just plain tired. And so are we – of having to put the President of the United States on the Worst list.

6 thoughts on “The Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2014
  1. Great picks! I love the inclusion of Lupita Nyong’o, Wendy Clark and Derek Jeter on the best list–they all embody that crucial humble confidence.
    Unfortunately for Donald Sterling, he blew the competition out of the water this year for Worst Communicator! We got a glimmer of the 2008 Obama in his appearance on the Colbert Report, but sadly, overall, his behaviors say “over it” more than they say great American leader.

  2. Good one, Julie! We had Pope Francis was on the Best List in 2013… and he certainly continued his top communicating in 2014, as well. Clear communicating, unburying the lead, connecting with people – and above all – humble confidence!

  3. Always look forward to reading the Decker Top Ten list for each category every year. Once again, Decker is spot on the mark with insightful and compelling analysis ===> and this keeps us more mindful of what – and what not to do as we head into 2015.

  4. Such a smart, strategic list!
    I do think, however, that Jill Abramson’s situation this year stemmed from a disadvantage more related to gender than anyone would like to admit. From receiving lower pay to pushback on her competitive goals, she was blocked at every turn. Sometimes you have to be a little rough off the cuff and “pushy” (for lack of a better term) if you’re going to break through that glass ceiling 🙂
    What do others think?! I would love to know!

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