Top 10 best and worst communicators of 2013

A look back at the winners and sinners of the year in the media.

It’s that time of year. In case you forgot who made waves in positive or negative ways, here’s who made Decker Communications’ annual best and worst list. With lessons translated for use with your colleagues, your customers and even your kids, we’ll begin with the best.

Speaking out against the status quo—and actually creating change—is hard. The challenge and testament of a true communicator is to lead and influence action. The Top 10 Best Communicators of 2013 created change, caused us to think and act differently and powerfully moved us in the process.

1. Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai

Nelson Mandela was not only a unique and inspiring world leader, he was an outstanding communicator. It is only fitting that he head the list as the No. 1 communicator in 2013.

Yet there was another unique and powerful communicator, the young Malala Yousafzai, who burst forth on the scene in 2013. Confident, focused, likable and articulate, she has command of messages, and continues to speak out for freedom and education for all.

United against injustice and persecution, it is only fitting that this top spot is shared—symbolically passing the torch from the legendary Mandela to the young Malala, poised and outspoken beyond her years.

2. Dick Costolo

The Twitter CEO has a big voice and routinely uses humor—specifically self-deprecating humor—to connect with his audience. He communicates for results, and his skills went a long way in establishing Twitter’s enormous value. Whether he’s on a big stage, in a fireside chat, in front of his team, or just tweeting, Costolo is direct while remaining accessible, disarming, and funny.

He relates to his listeners using stories and energy (to roaring applause at this commencement address at the University of Michigan, his alma mater). Best of all, though, Costolo builds rapport, another crucial element of success during Twitter’s 2013 quiet period, investor roadshow, and $1.82 billion IPO.

3. Pope Francis

Pope Francis is focused on creating a connection with people, and he has clearly communicated that the church should be less judgmental, more inclusive. Much like Pope John Paul, memorable for his communications and impact, Pope Francis communicates by accessibility instead of elitism: humbly living among the people, spending time out in the community, speaking openly, de-emphasizing politics, and candidly doing media interviews. He even takes selfies with tourists. Pope Francis has set a fresh tone for the Catholic Church, unburying the lead from hot-button political issues of abortion, gay marriage, and contraceptive methods.

4. Astro Teller

His official title is The Captain of Moonshots. From creating a self-driving car to enabling everyone in the world to access to the Internet to putting a computer on someone’s face, the head of Google X paints a picture that even the most audacious moonshots are possible. As a scientist and entrepreneur, he could be all about tech specs, yet Teller is remarkably engaging and easy to understand. He tells stories that connect with us, using imagery and concrete details that help his ideas come to life.

5. Blake Mycoskie

We can’t believe we’ve missed this CEO of Toms (shoes) on our list in the last few years. He’s likable and authentic, so we easily connect with Mycoskie’s sincerity, we laugh along with his cause marketing, and we admire the way he connects with his consumers. People want products with purpose, and this year Mycoskie launched a major initiative—the Toms Marketplace. The initiative harnesses 30 different social enterprises and 200 products that all have a giving component—a feat that could not be done without good communicating.

6. Alan Mulally

Not only has CEO Alan Mulally led the turn around of Ford Motor Co., but he has done it with vision, leadership, and a smile. Using the same tactics that helped him resuscitate Boeing after 9/11, his communication style exudes likability and lightness, making him credible to the investment community, inspirational to Ford employees, and influential with customers. He embodies our principles of “forward leaning” in all of his communications, and he is out front with all these audiences as he tells the story of the new and improved Ford Motor Co.

7. Debbie Sterling

If we close our eyes and picture an engineer, chances are that it won’t be long before it might be Debbie Sterling. She created GoldieBlox, an engineering toys for girls, for which she launched a prototype on Kickstarter in 2012. By mid-2013, GoldieBlox became a top-selling toy. Clearly, it’s a great idea. But the real reason for its success is the confident, concrete communication of founder and CEO Debbie Sterling. Her passionate story has echoed from the TED stage to Shopify to the press circuit.

8. Chris Christie

We named him a poster child for authenticity in 2011, and New Jersey’s governor continues to be a refreshing face in today’s world of political spin. He continues to do what he feels is right—crossing party lines to unite with President Obama to find solutions to New Jersey’s epic Sandy disaster, opening a Senate race to rival Cory Booker though it could hurt his party, and speaking out on controversial issues during his own campaign for reelection. Perhaps that’s why he won again in a landslide despite being a Republican in a Democratic state.

9. Dr. Brené Brown

An academic vaulted into TED stardom by boldly talking about vulnerability, bestselling author Dr. Brené Brown wins us with her communications. Genuine and conversational, Brown never holds back. She creates incredible connection with audiences—building trust, developing a feeling of safety, exposing vulnerability and opening others up. Everyone should have a goal of being so conversational, real and entertaining. Vulnerability is not a weakness; rather, it’s one of the most powerful communication tools that the very best leaders use to connect and inspire.

10. Jimmy Spithill

Handling pressure with grace, Jimmy Spithill, skipper for Oracle Team USA, motivated his team to a come-from-behind victory after a seemingly insurmountable deficit of one to eight (out of a best of nine race series) in the 2013 America’s Cup. Spithill exudes likability with his mega-watt smile, a perfect anecdote to the constant demands of media and fans. Motivating action is no easy feat; however, it’s a requisite responsibility for almost every leader. Spithill nailed it, demonstrating that top-notch communication skills are the key to motivation.

The 10 worst communicators

Obfuscation at best, lying at worst-those are the common denominators of the year’s worst communicators. Common to all are poor communications skills, and for most, missed opportunities to use their platform to effectively persuade for the good.

1. James Clapper

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a congressional committee, and when asked a yes-or-no question he answered so incredibly, undermining trust and believability, that this clip of head scratching has become a classic of behavior contradicting content. Now if that were the only instance for Clapper, he wouldn’t be at No. 1 on our Worst Communicators list, but it was a symptom of many.

2. Paula Deen

Racial slurs, question evading, and covering up the details are the ingredients for a communication disaster, not a trusted businessperson. Paula Deen’s attempt at “damage control” also proved damaging to her business empire. She released a string of disastrous Internet apology videos, like this one. When she appeared on “Today,” she was slow talking, defensive, and disengaging. By the end of June, 12 major companies had cut ties with her. Though she still works to rebuild her brand, she’d already spun herself a nasty, sour aftertaste.

3. Harry Reid and John Boehner

Both sides of the political aisle have flawed communicators as leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner. Partisan politics is at its worst these days. Sure, issues divide, but so do leaders who aren’t very persuasive. The behavior—low affect, communicating at the extreme, and no collaboration. Sometimes you wonder how Reid got elected, as he reads his speeches on the Senate floor in a monotone. Boehner is better known for his Merlot and golf than for gathering his cohorts to make an important vote. No wonder approval rating of Congress is at an all-time low.

4. Chip Wilson

After all the drama with the see-through fabric of their signature black pants, Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon Athletica, digs himself into a hole by saying (at 2:33) that Lululemon pants aren’t for every body type. Later, he gives a not-so-sincere video apology. The lesson here is twofold: Focus on your audience, and focus on the words. Words, alone, can alienate the very people you want to influence—your team, your customers, your fans, etc.

5. Richie Incognito and Mike Rice

Verbal abuse has long been a part of sports, but these two really crossed the line by being reprehensible—without remorse. Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito sent profanity-laced, threatening texts to his teammates. Post-incident, he said, “No matter how bad and how vulgar it sounds, that’s how we communicate … It sounds like I’m a racist pig. It sounds like I’m a meathead… ” Yes, it does. And with those eye darts, alone (not to mention his legacy of harassment), he affirms that message.

Mike Rice, ex-head coach for Rutgers basketball team, was fired this year for verbally abusing his players, as recorded on these tapes. Shown here discussing his aggressive actions, Rice fuels the fire with eye darts and non-words, also backpedaling on his message.

6. Miley Cyrus

A piece of us feels that we are feeding the system, here, by giving her more attention. Up close and personal, Miley comes across as unlikeable, like Hope Solo or Ryan Lochte. She has the opportunity to be like Lady Gaga, who is articulate and shocking. She runs her words together without a pausedarting and rolling her eyes as if she has no care for anyone , posture off to one side—and using so many meaningless words: “like,” “ya know,” “nah,” “I mean…” Chart-topping Miley says she is committed to turning her negatives into positives; we hope so.

7. Anthony Weiner

Oops, he did it again. That’s why he’s on the list this year (a repeat from the Top Ten Worst of 2011): He didn’t learn from his experience. We advocate getting feedback and using it to gain better performance. Weiner certainly had enough feedback, but he came back and again communicated very inappropriately. Then he again lied, obfuscated, wheedled, and even shouted at a follower. He also flipped the bird to the crowd as he garnered less than 5 percent of the vote.

8. Edward Snowden

In a country where plenty of people buy into fear-of-federal government theories and rhetoric, Snowden’s whistleblowing at first had some resonance. His story was simple: I am an average citizen, and I had access to secret information that I felt was deplorable and should be revealed to the public. He could have opened a global dialogue on whistleblowing. Instead, he chose to stay silent and hide out. Once he finally spoke out, he has come across as unlikeable, with a serious face and eyes darting all around. Do you feel compassion for him? The disparity between Snowden’s words and actions is too difficult to bridge.

9. Rob Ford

There’s no better example than Toronto Mayor Rob Ford of how one’s communications can undermine their influence. He has now admitted smoking crack and getting drunk, but he insists he is not an addict. Even physically knocking over a city councilwoman as he barreled toward the public gallery during a council meeting. Another issue is his messaging: profane, aggressive, defiant—and inconsistent. (Warning: Strong language in this clip.)

10. President Obama

The president almost always has to be on the list—for good or ill. President Obama was the No. 1 best in 2006 and again in 2008. He is great on the campaign trail in front of big audiences, highly skilled in rhetoric. From there, the president has descended to living by teleprompter and speechwriters—not leading us from the heart. He made the Worst list in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Scandals aside, the rhetoric from past campaigns wears thin in the bright glare of the healthcare debacle and government incompetence.

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

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Topics: PR

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