The top 10 best and worst communicators of 2011

Take a look and let us know who impressed you this year, or made you cringe.


Our top 10 communicators’ list is all about trust and vision.

We start with the 10 best, where those who communicate well also lead well. Unfortunately, those who dominate the worst list have garnered most of the attention in 2011 for lack of trust on the high end and deception on the low end.

The 10 best

1. Steve Jobs—perhaps the communicator of the decade, or century.

Steve Jobs is the rare one who creates and develops vision, communicates it clearly and colorfully, and then leads to completion. He’s made our best list four times, was No. 1 in 2005, and presented his iconic intro of the iPhone in 2007. He not only transformed technology and the way we live, but he also transformed the way businesses communicate.

For CEOs, speaking will never be the same. No more death by PowerPoint—he used few visuals and spoke from the heart. Perhaps his greatest speech was at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement. His message continues to be a model for not only business, but the larger world. We will miss him.

2. Howard Schultz—the all around business leader/communicator.

Schultz uses excellent communications to consistently lead Starbucks to success as CEO. He began the Starbucks journey in 1987 when he had to convince people to invest at the start, then inspire with vision to grow. Then in 2008, Schultz communicated with firmness when he laid off thousands and closed stores. This year he wrote the bestseller, “Onward.

3. Chris Anderson—elevating speech in the TED format.

Founder of the wildly popular TED Talks, Anderson is a visionary who uses speaking and video communication to contribute to the world around him. His ability to verbalize the essence of TED continues to inspire the best and the brightest to participate, leaving viewers with hours of juicy content to imbibe. People are so inspired by the concept that there are independent mini-TED conferences springing up all over the world.

4. Virginia Rometty—communicating on the fast track.

For the last seven years Fortune named Virginia Rometty one of the top 50 most influential women (eighth this year). This year she became the first female CEO of IBM. It was largely her communications that helped her rise to the top. Leadership is executed through communications, and ‘Ginni’ is likeable, strong, memorable, and connects with large audiences in a very authentic style.

5. Chris Christie—a political poster child for authenticity.

With President Obama already campaigning for 2012, more than 30 Republican debates, and allegations flying at many of the candidates, who do we believe? Who is authentic? Chris Christie leads the pack. Even his enemies say he means what he says and says what he means. His manner is direct, often gruff, and more often funny. Few question his sincerity, as he is refuses to run in order to finish his job as governor. Many Republicans wish he was running in the primary, for it’s no coincidence that his communication skills match his ability to get things done to turn around the economy in New Jersey.

6. Lady Gaga—speaking with multi-dimensional creativity.

She’s full of surprises and loves to shock us, but what’s even more surprising is her communication ability. Although Lady Gaga projects a character that’s pretty out there for some, we can all learn from her creativity. She personifies originality and we all need a little more of that. Gaga comes across well beyond her years—poised, confident, and sincere. When interviewed, especially about her little monsters (aka fans), her adoration for them is clear, and she becomes, surprisingly, human. Gaga can own a stage not only with her songs, but also with her goosebump-inducing cadence when delivering a speech.

7. Warren Buffett—years of consistent communication.

Buffett lands himself on the list for his consistently strong communications. While he is an investor and businessman, the way he speaks and conveys his ideas have made him an icon. He’s even spoken on the importance of getting training in speaking! He’s a trusted leader, and known to say what he thinks, even if it’s unexpected and potentially unpopular. Although he doesn’t often give long speeches, he’s authentic and powerful when he does, contributing to his reputation as a respected thought leader.

8. Christine Lagarde—speaking powerfully from the top of the financial world.

She is elegant, stylish and stately, and tough as nails. It’s no wonder that Christine Lagarde was elected head of the IMF after the Dominick Strauss Kahn scandal. She was the one who could handle the turmoil, and bring direction to this large and important agency. She speaks with clarity and firmness, and in so doing, marks herself as one of the top female communicators in the world. With one of her most charming and powerful qualities being candor she speaks with firmness and grace, and handles interviews well.

9. Morgan Spurlock—high energy and a distinctive style puts him in his own films.

Whether he’s stuffing his face with Big Macs or recruiting sponsors for his own 2011 TED Talk Spurlock’s high energy and distinctive style continues to capture our attention. He puts himself in the middle of his documentaries, like his Academy Award nominated “Super Size Me” where he skillfully walks the line between outlandish and down to earth. Most recently his camera shined a light on movie product placement with “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” It’s Spurlock’s pervasive curiosity, grab-a-beer-with-me approachability, and passion that keep us watching and waiting for his next expose.

10. Andy Rooney—a tribute to creating a unique communications experience.

This cranky, prickly mainstay communicator of “60 Minutes” was 92 in age, but young in heart and vitality. In all, he delivered 1,097 commentaries. You might have disagreed with him, but you would laugh along with him. He made watching him a unique communication experience, and we will miss his witty insights.

The 10 worst

1. Anthony Weiner—poster child for deceptive communications.

Anthony Weiner was a respected congressman, elected as much for his communications as for his deeds. Using that same confident style, he was filled with puffed up outrage when claiming his Twitter account was hacked by someone else showing his lewd photos. When he fessed up that it was him who tweeted, he continued to obfuscate, trying to hang on to his office. But he had to hang it up, as his communications this time did him in. He had no apology, in both substance and style. He ultimately resigned in disgrace—because of the photos, sure—but just as much because of communications that lacked any degree of humility, credibility and above all leadership.

2. Brian Harrison and Bill Stover—Solyndra execs do not communicate.

It’s never a good idea not to communicate when you’re under fire. Brevity and effective diversion is one thing, but stonewalling is something else. Harrison and Stover showed how closed communications will doom a cause when they invoked the Fifth Amendment. The performance reminds us of a few other worst communicators we featured, like Mark McGuire in 2005. Communicating effectively is critical under the toughest pressure. And it helps to not be guilty.

3. Charlie Sheen—erratic does not pay.

This can’t be a huge surprise for anyone who has watched TV or read the news in the last year. Charlie Sheen lost control and went on a rampage for a significant portion of 2011. While Sheen has come out saying it was “one weird phase,” his faux pas was much more—it was the start of his fall. Following the example of Mel Gibson (fifth on the 2010 worst list), Sheen lost his TV role after unleashing a furious rant about his “Two and a Half Men” producer, and then spun off to rant across the country on a failed tour. He may be attempting a comeback, but he’s a clear example of how erratic communication can destroy a reputation, and perhaps a career.

4. The Murdochs & Ms. Brooks—followers communicate like leaders.

This motley crew went on the defensive in the wake of their cell phone hacking scandal, communicating elusively and trying to get away with as much as possible. Rupert Murdoch’s history of aloofness and arrogance caught up with him, especially as he brushed off his apologies to those affected by the hackings. His son, Jim, spoke most during their parliamentary hearings and found himself hissing like a cornered animal, only further highlighting his deception. To top it off, News Corp. staffer Rebekah Brooks, when announcing to her News of the World team that they’re jobless due to her mismanagement, spent most of the time talking about her own feelings. Guilty of bad journalism isn’t in question—these three are guilty of poor communication.

5. Rick Perry—it’s not just the one miscue, but the overall experience.

Rick Perry had the most publicized communication failure of the year when he couldn’t remember his third point in a presidential debate. He could have topped the worst list with that faux pas along with his early amateurish debate performances, marked by halting mannerisms, jerky style and hostile attacks. But he’s middle because he recovered pretty well, mostly by poking fun at himself. At least there’s a positive learning point here—the power of humor.

6. Brian Moynihan—not ready for primetime.

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan has had several missteps in his first year, from the $5 debit surcharge to the foreclosure fiasco. At a time when clear communications and leadership was required, he stumbled, notably over his excuse that Bank of America has a “right to make a profit.” You know you’re in trouble when you’re on a list of CEOs who need to be fired. Business leaders can’t talk transparency, they have to live and communicate it.

7. Greg Mortensen—Three Cups of Deceit.

Communications built up the reputation and wallet of the author of the bestselling “Three Cups of Tea.” Mortensen leveraged that success and began receiving high priced fees for keynote speaking. He had a great message to tell about his humanitarian aid for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But that confidence disappeared when he was exposed by “60 Minutes” to have lied, and possibly misused charitable funds. Nowhere is guilt more apparent in communicating style than in this clip where he is confronted by a “60 minutes” reporter. It’s not just that he is caught off guard, but his lack of eye communication, hesitation as well as subsequent behavior that shouts “guilty.” He was asked to resign, and this was followed up by an acquaintance writing the book “Three Cups of Deceit.” Character and integrity are the base for the tripod of good communications.

8. The commissioners Selig, Goodell and Stern—Where leadership requires powerful communicators.

Although it wasn’t entirely the fault of David Stern, the NBA commissioner helped the league lose a couple of months of their multi-billion dollar season this year. Stern, in office since 1984, may be the most offensive communication wise with his arrogance. Roger Goodell of the NFL holds himself so meekly we rarely hear of him, but at least he averted a strike. Ironically, the healthiest league now is under the worst speaker of the three, Bud Selig. He tends to articulate as if his mouth is full of grapes. The commissioners lead big strong athletes, and they need to be big, strong communicators.

9. Leo Apotheker—a bull in a china shop.

If the three key reasons you’re fired as CEO is bad communication, you’re going to make our list. Apotheker was known for going his own way, not communicating a clear vision for HP, not getting consensus and buy-in of his executive board, and standing at the helm as HP’s stock lost nearly half its value. Communicating internally and externally with vision and promise is key to great leadership. Apotheker fell short and lost a huge opportunity. You can’t be a bull in a china shop without crashing a lot of plates.

10. President Barack Obama—needing to communicate to unite.

The president always appears on the list—sometimes best, sometimes worst. This year, Obama, who once led the best list in 2008, is the best of the worst. It is not so much deception as evasion, where the promise of change and hope was trumpeted so forcefully that everyone believed him. No longer, as support has stalled. When we need uniting, we hear dividing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics isn’t the point. When in a position of power, a leader must trumpet a direction in spite of the circumstances. (And not use a teleprompter to do it.)

Ben Decker is president of Decker Communications. In addition to speaking and leading executive programs, he spearheads Decker’s strategy and expansion efforts.

Kelly Decker is executive vice president of Decker Communications. She is the head of Decker’s program development and training, and works closely with clients to customize innovative programs to solve their communications challenges.

Topics: PR

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