This year's List of Top Communicators highlights the best and worst from business, politics, entertainment, and sports - take a look to see how communications skills helped make or break these notable individuals.
Obama-mania! He burst on the scene with one speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. And he has kept up his impact in the high risk, high profile arena of politics – so much so he deserves to be the Top Communicator of 2006. Obama is one of the few politicians who’s one name captures the experience of the person, like Oprah, Bono and Madonna. And Obama might be the real deal. He looks his interviewers and public in the eye, holds himself tall, yet remains informal and humble in stance in posture. Yes, he is a real candidate for the Presidency. And to add to the exposure, he even has come out with a best selling book. So he’s smart, as well as a great communicator.
Rick Warren is also smart, and truly one of the greatest communicators in print and person. Author of the mightiest best seller of all time (except for the Bible), and leader of one of the largest churches in the country, Rick Warren does it through personal influence. Always focused with a strong Point Of View whether preaching, speaking or in personal appearances, he is also informal. Although he now seems to eschew his favorite short sleeved Hawaiian shirts with his fame and notoriety, he does not formalize his conversational tone and manner, no matter how serious the subject. Promoting his PEACE project to serve and heal the sick and needy, he is mobilizing the world on an international level to fight AIDS. And he just might do it.
It’s not just the results in becoming the first female Speaker of the House in the United States that makes Nancy so impressive, it’s what she has had to do to overcome. And she continues to do as she navigates the rocky shoals of the shallow political battlefield. A mother of five and totally behind the scenes as a Democratic fundraiser before she ran for office, she was not a natural public speaker. She worked at it, and worked at it hard. (Like a news disclaimer here, I must confess I coached her.) Nancy Pelosi is now outstanding in thinking on her feet, giving the best sound bite, and smiling as if it was natural to her. Smart as a whip, yes, but much more. Watch her go.
Newly elected National Commander of the Salvation Army in the U.S., Israel Gaither has absolute conviction and high level communication – thus he overcame the odds. The first African American Commander (and a mixed marriage), Gaither is a superb preacher and speaker – he would say it’s the power of God and if you met him you would not argue. Nor would you argue about his skill as a communicator playing a strong role in his rise to leadership – strong of voice, well prepared, always focused, and with movement, energetic gestures and expressive language and word pictures – he commands an audience whether it is a small group of civic leaders, or thousands of the members of his Army. (Which by the way is the largest army in the world – with over three million officers, employees and volunteers and a $2.6 billion budget.) Gaither’s biography is called titled “Man With A Mission,” so its likely you will be hearing a lot more from him.
Finally, a movie star, and beautiful at that, who is now known as much by what she says and how she says it as being beautiful. Under klieg lights she appears natural, (and they say that lower lip is natural too.) It is a tribute to her cause, and her articulation of that cause for children and the impoverished, that she has become a public figure as a stateswoman rather than just a beauty. Who knows, she might get Knighted too, since Bono was on this Ten Best list last year and look what just happened to him.
6. Nido Qubein – Dramatic change due to communicating a vision
The only repeat from last year’s Best List influenced so much in 2006 he must be included again. Nido Qubein will also someday be known by the one name “Nido,” because he continues to communicate his vision of the world in a way that positively impacts tens of thousands. Chairman of four companies and a multi-millionaire businessman who gives away his millions – he also is President of High Point University in North Carolina. It is there that this one man has single handedly inspired his team to literally transform a University in the space of less than two years. $100 million dollars raised, 10 new buildings, a tangible new spirit of “WOW” on a campus that is doubling in applications, inquiries, and results. Nido is one of those who could speak for one minute or one hour at a moment’s notice, and change your life. He’s that good.
Businessman, blogger and brazen raconteur, Guy Kawasaki is the original Apple “evangelist” who keeps on writing books, financing companies with his venture capital, and speaking out in a wry, witty and winsome style to further his own fortunes and others. He gave me an interview briefly and succinctly that only hints at his communication style – irreverent and relevant. He embodies the SHARP principles of using Stories, Humor, Analogies, References and Pictures that make a speech come alive. He’s on his way to sharing the same platform with his mentor and last year’s Communicator of the Year Steve Jobs. Now that’s saying something.
8. Tavis Smiley – Advocacy power from a new media star
Some say he is in the image of Oprah, but here’s a fresh face who has his own talk show, a best seller in “What I Know for Sure” atop the NY Times best seller list, and is authentic to boot. Smiley is smiley, as well as serious, sincere and simpatico. Excellent in thinking on his feet, he is also thoughtful with a Point Of View. As he puts it, “I didn’t go from being a media person to being an advocate. I started out being an advocate. My advocacy is who I am.” Wish there were more like him – creating a stir with a positive communication experience.
Perhaps Jim Cramer is an odd one for the Ten Best list, since he is the outrageous host of Mad Money. I originally lumped him with Borat (for the movie Borat) and Will Ferrel (Ricky Bobby and Elf, and anything he is in,) They are not the odd couple or even the odd trio. They ARE over the top, and that’s the difference. They bring great successes to their vehicles solely on the strength of their commitment. Oh that some people in business could just have the ‘forward lean’ and gumption to stand up for their positions, companies, causes and the like. Jim Cramer lets it all hang out, and in so doing may alienate some, but in the process can convince and persuade the majority. He makes a difference, and if we are to communicate well, at some point we have to be out there. Risk. Being small benefits no one – being large can inspire thousands.
10. Jon Stewart – Wry humor wins the Academy Award
There are a lot of comedians out there who are funny – which is a GREAT communication asset – but don’t have much beef to add to the human comedy. Jon Stewart is an exception. The Daily Show is a great forum for public converse as well as laughs, but the real reason Stewart lands here is the Academy Awards. Few off beat comics make it to host the Academy Awards, and Stewart did, and he did well. He entertained, but with high level spontaneity under pressure as well, or you don’t succeed. Jon Stewart did, and he’ll be back.
The Ten Worst Communicators of 2006
The host of the Nancy Grace Show is the worst communicator across a wide spectrum of public figures. I don’t understand why and how she is on the air, much less on a respected cable channel. Prediction – Nancy Grace won’t be there through the year, unless people continue to want to watch train wrecks. Even Saturday Night Live could not parody her very well, as they allowed the barest smile through the sneers. Mean and vicious in face and tone, she is on the attack, and that’s how she has made her name as a commentator. Maybe she is tolerable in a sound bite, but for a half hour one just feels dirty after watching her. Whether she caused a suicide of one of her interviewees is debatable, but whether she does well as a communicator is not. She doesn’t.
I want to like Barry Bonds. I’m from San Francisco, and I’d also like to see him break a record – that’s exciting and fun. But this feeling is now tarnished – breeding mixed feelings. Not so much because of a plethora of possible steroids as a scarcity of sincerity. Communicating is a contact sport. People have to connect with people to make contact, and Barry has the perfect smile and face to do just that. And he used to at some point I guess – but now it is just disrespect. Distance. Dissing the reporters. And they give it right back. Aloof and arrogant, it’s hard to find humble and happy in today’s experience of Barry Bonds. All the negativity would not disappear with great communications, but he could reduce it by more than half if he would just talk to his public in an authentic way.
3. Mel Gibson– Rants (and DUIs) won’t do
It’s not just the DUI and subsequent racial rant that puts Mel Gibson on the Worst List. (On that account he probably ties with Michael Richards.) With Gibson it’s his personal communications. He is jumpy and nervous – and that seems to be his basic problem. At heart he does not appear to be confident in himself or what he is saying, and that’s what comes across when he plays himself. I love his films, and like and respect his ability – but every time I see him in a personal appearance, not playing a role, he is just not believable. Eyes darting all over, hyper and tight in gesture, you just don’t know where he is coming from. And that bodes ill for any communication experience.
4. Ray Tillerson - New Exxon CEO continues the tradition, unfortunately
When Big Oil could really use a great communicator, giant Exxon replaces CEO Lee Raymond (one of last year’s Worst) with another non-communicator. Low energy and monotone, Tillerson needs to take the offensive to have any chance to turn the image of this company around. On track to surpass last years $36 billion profit year while the public still pays high prices at the pump, Tillerson, and any other oil company executives, should be making the case for themselves, rather than lamely mumbling, hiding or downright obfuscating. 82% of the American people (USA Today) say that oil profits should be regulated – there is an essential need for great communicators if they want to counter this image.
The age of ‘real men’ had the Rat Pack, now we have sunk to the girls of the Mice Pack. Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Nicole Richie are beautiful young women who don’t have a voice, even though some of them can sing. And when they speak – only the paparazzi listen. Of course when they behave – it’s girls behaving badly, and it’s what they are now known for. Unfortunately only the media pick them up, for they have nothing to say except to shield themselves from the cameras.
6. Senator George Allen – One word too many
Virginia Senator George Allen was a front runner not only for reelection this year, but a potential Presidential candidate - until he said "macaca," using the word for monkey in referring to a minority - in public and in anger! One word totally reversed what was an expected landslide election to become the slim loss that gave the Democrats the Majority in the Senate. Of course, it was more than one word - that was the tip of the iceberg that caused people to look beyond the surface. Another example perhaps of the unconscious breaking through in communicating what is really there, and shouldn't be. It's also another reason that you can't hide behind surface communication for very long.
7. OJ Simpson – Once again, badly, and sadly, in the news
The tragedy that is the sad saga of OJ Simpson just continues as he makes statements that turn untrue. This time it was about “The Book” and how he wasn’t going to make any money from it. Not believable in content, not believable in behavior, and not believable in past experience. The once famous smile that we did once believe is now a hollow echo that we no longer trust.
One of the greatest big men on the basketball court, Shaq is tiny off it. This year he won the NBA title for the Miami Heat, and he should have been rolling in endorsements and public appearances. Instead, he is parodied on Saturday Night Live and even worse on MAD TV. There is no excuse for those at the top of their game to not become top communicators. It’s a learned skill. And it looks like Shaq works at communicating about as much as he works on his free throws.
9. Rosie, Katie, Meredith – Right people in the wrong place
Rosie O’Donnell on The View, Katie Couric on CBS News and Meredith Vieira on The Today Show. Oh that each had stayed where they were. Rosie was funny as a comedienne, now is strident and pushy as the ‘co-host.’ I loved Katie on The Today Show – she even interviewed me and is as nice as she appears. But she is not cut out for the hard news, night in and night out. When we want news, we want trust and authenticity. She is not a Walter Cronkite. So she is mired in third place after all the hype. Cute and connecting will not save her. And Meredith is not a Katie. She should have stayed in View. A reminder here to know and use our strengths as communicators, and avoid those situations where we’re not.
10. George Bush – Communications problems have not been addressed
The President unfortunately returns as the only repeat on the Worst List – because of his influence, or lack thereof. Mired in the problems of Iraq, soundly defeated in the mid-term elections, President Bush more and more sounds like a voice crying in the wilderness of unpopularity, and not doing it very effectively at that. He continues to appear too much as a petulant child, pleading for his case with a high voice, and a look that continues to be the most parodied on television. And TV is the mass media that a president must use as a bully pulpit if he is to be effective. And George Bush just is not. Last year I said that he could cut his problems in half if he was effective in his speaking. He hasn’t changed. As a communicator, he’s no John Kennedy, and the numbers reflect it.