2014’s best and worst communicators

Spanning politics and pop culture, business mavens and sports idols, these tandem lists highlight the silver-tongued and cast a harsh glare on the tongue-tied.

There is no such thing as private speaking, and Decker Communications’ Top Ten Best and Worst Communicators of 2014 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.

10 Best

1. Robin Williams

Robin Williams deftly employed crucial assets of all top communicators-spontaneity and the ability to live in the moment. He was uniquely funny and deserving of in memoriam honors for his work. He used his brilliant mind, as well as his body and props, to add physical expression to his words and humor in the moment.

2. Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson is just so darn likable. In a world that judges quickly, his smile immediately engages and draws his audience right in. He can also be serious in a crisis. Branson swiftly and empathetically addressed the situation (though we wish we could work with him to eliminate those “ums” and “uhs”).

3. Wendy Clark

Wendy Clark presents herself differently from most executives. A senior marketer at Coca-Cola, Clark’s natural and funny opening may be a bit canned (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, her passion radiates. She demonstrates the kind of executive presence we advocate, teach and admire.

4. Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter embodies all-American humble confidence. When he took the mic at Yankee Stadium, he was thankful, articulate and humorous in front of a huge live and televised audience. With a surprising lack of arrogance, Jeter is grateful to his parents, humble, well-mannered-the kind of role model we want for our kids.

5. Jimmy Fallon

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. (Watch how he leans in with a wide-open expression—wanting the person sitting in the other chair to succeed.)

6. Adam Silver

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver deftly handles Q-and-A exchanges, knows how to communicate a strong point of view and bridges the needs of the owners with the desires of the fans. His quick, concise, firm yet fair communication of the consequences for Donald Sterling was a great example of clear messaging. Articulate and accessible, Silver has found a way to make seriousness an asset in communicating.

7. Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o inspired us with so many speeches this year. Articulate and intentional, she uses strong SHARPs, excellent transitions, a steady voice and vulnerable revelations into her own experiences, hopes, empathy and emotion. In interviews, she is just as steady, light, intentional and direct.

8. Kathy Murphy

Kathy Murphy shakes off stiff, scripted corporate speak by pairing polish with passion. Her conversational credibility comes from a naturally deep, authoritative voice that is full of expression, along with a quick smile. Murphy is known for her straight talk and candor, sharing personal stories and experiences (as in her 2013 TEDx Talk).

9. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift has phenomenal customer-centricity . Swift’s lightness, enthusiasm and willingness not to take herself too seriously helps people connect with her. She puts herself in the audience’s shoes, always relating her own experiences to theirs and focusing on similarities, not differences. Always acknowledging and thanking her fans, she thanks them for a chance to share her life.

10. Tony Fadell

Tony Fadell knows that jargon is for “single, geeky guys,” and he boils his products down for families. He breaks down his crazy-scientific-specialized knowledge into nuggets that we can understand, focusing the conversation on the benefits we want, such as cost savings. He’s great in front of a crowd (as in this 2012 clip) because he uses big gestures, vocal variety, lightness and movement.

10 Worst

1. Donald Sterling

In the digital age the world is an open mic, as Donald Sterling knows so well. What you say always matters-as in this grossly racist conversation between Sterling (then owner of the Los Angeles Clippers) and his girlfriend. The media backlash was intense, and Sterling’s monthlong silence didn’t help. When he did apologize, he failed miserably, exhibiting neither humility nor remorse. There is no such thing as private speaking. His “private” comments were heard and judged, to his detriment.

2. Chuck Hagel

At Chuck Hagel’s Senate hearing about his nomination as Secretary of Defense (in January 2013), he underwhelmed us with non-words and rambling comments. 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.

3. Michael Bay

Michael Bay had a massive disaster at the Consumer Electronics Show when he got out of sync with his teleprompter. He could not “wing it,” and he actually walked off the stage in embarrassment. It was painful but offered a good lesson: Familiarize yourself with your key points. Then, when you lose your train of thought (as we all do), pause, think, then continue.

4. Roger Goodell

Roger Goodell is a lousy communicator. (He made the Worst Communicator list in 2011 for being meek and ineffective.) This year, Goodell’s tactics were dismissive and tardy instead of action-oriented or timely. His wooden speaking “performances,” in which he typically reads from scripts, generally seem insincere.

5. Jill Abramson

For someone who is so well-written (and who can prepare powerful words, as she did for this commencement speech about resilience), Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, is especially rough in free-flowing dialogue (here, too). Abramson’s upspeak and slurred cadence undermine her credibility, and her audience tunes out.

6. Kanye West

Arrogant, dismissive and self-absorbed, Kanye West contributes to a conversation about himself with only fidgeting and self-focused (rather than listener-focused) rambling. Here in an interview, he explains that he couldn’t care less about the interviews. Yeezus, Kanye, take a slice of humble pie.

7. Stephen A. Smith

ESPN host Stephen A. Smith’s arrogant caricature is grating because he speaks so loudly and with a monotonous cadence that feels like he is beating issues, not discussing them. It’s exacerbated when he pauses between words, rather than between sentences, as if he is holding court.

8. Rikk Wilde

Chevrolet’s Rikk Wilde during the World Series MVP Presentation botched one of the biggest opportunities of his entire life. In this case, it was the handlers, those who “prepped” him with a detail-laden script. The solution? Craft a couple of key points, and then embrace the moment. (“Have fun with this-you get to give away a car!”) The communication experience is about way more than the specific words you say.

9. Richard Ledgett

NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett’s inconsistent behaviors,boatloads of filler words and telltale eye darts detract from his entire experience. Sure, regulations prohibit him from giving more details, but Ledgett’s behavioral skills eroded all trust. Stiff as a board, he doesn’t show energy or humanity, with his monotone voice and lack of facial expressions.

10. Barack Obama

Given his capacity for captivating oratory, we are disappointed to see President Obama’s lack of authority and eye communication persist—even with the camera. This started as a reliance on teleprompters, and lately Obama frequently closes his eyes, making him seem distant and uninterested. That and the lack of energy in his voice convey that he is just plain tired. So are we—of having to put the president of the United States on the Worst list.

Ben Decker is the CEO and Kelly Decker is the president of Decker Communications, a training, coaching and consulting firm to Fortune 500 companies. A version of this article originally appeared on the Decker Communications blog.

Topics: PR


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