The 10 best & 10 worst communicators of 2012

Politicians, business execs, athletes, entertainers—each group is represented in both categories. Check out who made the lists, and why.

The 17th annual Decker Communications List of Top Ten Communicators features noteworthy successes and failures—reminding us that strong communication skills are essential. Highlighted 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:

10 best communicators:

The 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 Michelle Obama consistently communicates to influence. In the way that then-Sen. Barack Obama won our No. 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.

2. Marco Rubio

Though a senator for only a few months, Marco Rubio was mentioned early and often as a potential presidential candidate. Why? He is a master communicator. (He’s moved up from No. 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 two languages (starting in Spanish and 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.

3. Missy Franklin

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 a 17-year-old. We use the term “humble confidence” in our coaching, and she’s a prime example, 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 more than10 million hits.

4. Ryan Seacrest

Considered the hardest-working man in Hollywood, he’s been on our radar as a top communicator for years—and we think it’s his time for a spot on this list. 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. His willingness to be self-deprecating and open makes him likeable and helps him connect with just about any audience.

5. Cory Booker

Newark Mayor Cory Booker 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 consistently uses humor, emotion and stories 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.

6. Sheryl Sandberg

A role model as an executive, social media champion, and 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. Whether talking about a Facebook expansion, energy, or job creation, Sandberg keeps her messages simple, concrete and credible.

7. Bill Clinton

He treats prepared text “the way jazz greats soar from the sheet music.” Clinton’s improvisations are the stuff of legend. He “improvised 20 percent 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 when 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.

8. Steven Colbert & Jon Stewart

Colbert and Stewart took it to another level in this political year. Colbert and Stewart collaborated to simplify the extremely convoluted details of campaign finance and Super PACs, among other things. Comedy Central‘s two geniuses are naturally energetic, quick of tongue and wit, and they team brilliantly to produce a series of concrete, clear, engaging sketches. Instead of attacking the same old sound bites as news stations do, they dive deep into the rules and regulations to educate the audience on the realities of campaign finance laws 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.

9. Jack Dorsey

Identified as one of the Innovators of the Year (in addition one of the Sexiest CEOs Alive), Jack Dorsey co-founded Twitter and the mobile payment company 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 using stories and analogies to connect to his audience, Dorsey comfortably moves and gestures on the stage and uses effective visuals.

10. Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer was elected CEO of Yahoo because she’s an elite engineer, tech innovator, and leader. That she was 37 years old and seven 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. Though Mayer credits her early tech success to her being gender blind, a personal story she tells with humor, she’s led by a 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.

10 worst communicators

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

1. Francesco Schettino

In the midst of catastrophe, leaders step up to communicate. Or don’t. (See our 2010 list.) Capt. Francesco Schettino of the grounded Costa Concordia stepped back and went silent. Because he navigated his ship too close to the rocks, 32 people died this past January. 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 Italian coast guard had to call him. He 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.

2. Todd Aiken & Richard Mourdock

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 derail his message, as well as his bid for the U.S. 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 that God intended 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 and clean it up completely, for only then can you move on.

3. Bashar Al-Assad

Early on, Barbara Walters had a telling, foreboding interview with Assad, the president of Syria. Incredible are the many words and principles he espouses in most of his interviews 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 his language.

4. John McAfee

When Belizean authorities sought John 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 government entities. His behavior? Eccentric. His message? Confusing, not credible.

5. Hope Solo

The gold medal-winning goalkeeper from the U.S. National Soccer Team makes our “worst” list even though she is a confident communicator with a steady voice and good eye contact. Due to 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 missing? Humility.

6. Joe Biden

So in this presidential election year, all four candidates had their moments. But Vice President 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 are 10), but they just keep on coming.

7. Mark Pincus

Likability is crucial for communications, 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 toward destroying his credibility.

8. Ryan Lochte

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 “ums” and “uhs” 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. When the media was begging for a replacement for Michael Phelps—not that Phelps is a great 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.

9. David Axelrod

There were a lot of spinmeisters during this political year, but maybe none as incredible as President Obama’s campaign 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 Obama’s communications performance at the debate. Though 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 you during a tough round of questions—but Axelrod took this to the extreme (from 2:01 to end). 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. Nonstop spinning is not good communication.

10. Scott Forstall

Kenny Rogers had it right in his song “The Gambler.” Former 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 be a brilliant software designer, but he was a poor communicator, especially off the stage. 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).

Decker Communications consults and trains businesses in communications both in what they say and how they say it. A version of this article first appeared on Decker.com’s blog.

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