I am a Bert Decker fan. I subscribe to his blog and learn from him often. I’ve got his books on my wishlist.
But, after reading his “Top Ten Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2008” list, I’m confused — how did he get it wrong?
Best Communicators of 2008
- Barack Obama
- Tim Russert
- Randy Pausch
- Colin Powell
- Mike Huckabee
- John Chambers
- Sarah Palin
- Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki
- Tina Fey
- Anderson Cooper
Worst Communicators of 2008
- George Bush
- Richard Fuld
- Rod Blagojevich
- Eliot Spitzer
- Roger Clemens
- Sarah Palin
- Dan Rather
- Al Davis
- Rosie O’Donnell
- John McCain
Okay, top 10 lists are subjective by nature. They are one person’s opinion. Can Bert Decker really be wrong in his opinion? No, he can’t.
So, instead, I’ll just have to say that I am disappointed with this year’s lists for three reasons:
1. Too much emphasis on politics.
60% of the individuals cited are intimately tied to the political arena.
- 7 of the Best are either politicians (Obama, Powell, Huckabee, and Palin) or closely tied to politicians in 2008 (Russert, Fey, Cooper)
- 5 of the Worst (Bush, Blagojevich, Spitzer, Palin, and McCain) are politicians
This is a bit like having 60% of the “Best Athletes of 2008” be Olympic heroes and disappointments. [Then again, perhaps Michael Phelps could be #1, #2, … #8.]
Yes, 2008 is a presidential election year. And, yes, communication is an integral part of politics. However, there’s a whole world communicating out there outside of the political arena too. Duarte and Reynolds merit much higher consideration, for example, because they are helping transform the public speaking status quo.
2. “Worst Communicator” = “Scandal-ridden”??
(At least) Six of the 10 Worst were caught up in scandals of varying degree in 2008: Fuld, Blagojevich, Spitzer, Clemens, Davis, O’Donnell.
Which of these seem more likely?
- Bad communication leads to scandal?
Did these people end up embroiled in scandal because they are poor communicators? No, the scandals resulted because they made (very) bad decisions.
- Scandal leads to bad communication?
Before the scandal broke, were they particularly bad communicators? Maybe. Maybe not. But without those scandals, none of these people would be on the list. Feelings of guilt plus a camera and microphone is a bad combination… for just about anyone.
I’m not saying that these people demonstrated good communication habits under fire. But, it is rare for someone to be under fire and come out looking like a great communicator.
I’d prefer more emphasis on this list on genuinely bad communicators not tied to scandals (Bill Gates is the often cited example here, although that title is not always deserved.)
3. Randy Pausch, not Barack Obama, is the Best Communicator of 2008
It’s a difficult task to argue against Barack Obama in #1 position. It would not surprise me if he earns that position for the next eight years.
- His oration skills have been compared regularly to Lincoln, Churchill, and Kennedy.
- His speaking prowess far outdistanced that of his two main rivals this year (Hilary Clinton, John McCain).
- His speeches are worthy of analysis (he has already been featured on Six Minutes, and he will continue to be going forward).
But, it is overkill to suggest that “he was elected President BECAUSE of his communications ability“. Numerous factors contributed to his victory, including these three:
- Superior Fundraising — His campaign excelled at fundraising in ways never seen before.
- Superior Strategy — His team had the best strategy (both in the Democratic primaries and the general election).
- Inferior Bush — The economy and Iraq (among many other reasons) doomed any candidate the Republicans put forward.
Running for President put Obama in a very select group, and gave him a global audience. To his credit, he maximized this opportunity. But would he be first on this list if he were giving these same speeches as just the Senator from Illinois? Would he have moved millions to action if he were just a party strategist? Or a community organizer from Chicago? Or a computer science professor?
Randy Pausch was a computer science professor. He had virtually no audience — just an auditorium filled with 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University. He had no fame. No reputation. No speechwriters. No army of volunteers. He had nothing to guarantee an attentive audience other than a particularly timely lecture and a death sentence of pancreatic cancer. As he points out in his book, this fact hardly makes him unique — more than 37,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year.
Despite all of this, over 8 million people have watched Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture on Youtube alone. That’s quite an increase from the 400 who saw it live.
Pausch’s Last Lecture is poignant, thought-provoking, emotional, funny, inspirational, and memorable. Pausch lacked Obama’s polish as a classical orator, but he is second to none as a communicator.
His skillful communication continued beyond his famous speech into his bestselling book, which I received for Christmas a few days ago. In addition to all the life lessons, every speaker can learn from how Pausch teaches a lesson through storytelling. If you enjoyed the stories in the speech, you’ll love the additional stories in the book. Ditch the facts, figures, and PowerPoint… just tell stories.
In short, 2008 saw Pausch emerge from complete obscurity to touch the hearts of millions… all from a single speech to an audience of 400. He proved that if you speak from the heart, the world will listen. For that, he’s the best communicator of 2008 in my book.