Article Category: Commentary

Why Pausch, not Obama, is Best Communicator of 2008

Randy Pausch: Last LectureI 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

  1. Barack Obama
  2. Tim Russert
  3. Randy Pausch
  4. Colin Powell
  5. Mike Huckabee
  6. John Chambers
  7. Sarah Palin
  8. Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki
  9. Tina Fey
  10. Anderson Cooper

Worst Communicators of 2008

  1. George Bush
  2. Richard Fuld
  3. Rod Blagojevich
  4. Eliot Spitzer
  5. Roger Clemens
  6. Sarah Palin
  7. Dan Rather
  8. Al Davis
  9. Rosie O’Donnell
  10. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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  1. Bert Decker says:

    Hi Andrew – You are thorough! Great post.
    I actually don’t protest, except my justifications:

    * My list has influence and impact as a criteria. As unique and moving as Pausch was – and it was certainly his communications that brought him to fame, Obama’s communications not only brought him to fame and celebrity, but to the leadership of the free world.

    * It WAS a political year.

    * There are dozens of people I would like to mention or include but they are not known, and that is a criteria as well. Although now and then I feel compelled…

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Excellent job! Sorry, Burt. I immediately noticed the overabundance of politics in Burt’s list and also thought that Obama should have been on the best and worst.

    I also believe that communication is a skill found in every occupation, vocation, and tribulation. Being a star doesn’t make Hollywood’s elite more valuable than someone else, and politics does not make one a better communicator than a non-politician.

    To top it off, Randy Pausch. Influence? Influence is the mean by which you move people to action. How many will be moved to action by Randy Pausch? I suspect that number will always be underestimated.

  3. John Watkis says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Like you, my list of the top 10 communicators isn’t the same as Bert Decker’s. We all have our preferences, so differences in opinion are to be expected.

    That being said, I agree that Barack Obama was the #1 communicator in 2008.

    You suggest that it’s “overkill” to say Barack was elected president because of his communication ability, but the statement holds water. The only reason Obama was even considered to run against Clinton was because of his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Before that, he was a relative unknown to the world. For the record, he wrote that speech by himself.

    His “Yes we can” concession speech in New Hampshire was the driving force behind his win over Hillary Clinton. It inspired a song that was viewed by over 3 million people in 3 days on YouTube.

    Yes, his fundraising and strategy were superior, but people gave because they believed. And they believed because Obama communicated hope. Do you really think any politician could have used the same strategy and raised the same amount of money?

    As for Randy Pausch … he was no mere “computer science professor”. Within the context of his speech, you’re made to understand that he accomplished a lot in his life and had a huge network.

    To say he had “no fame” and “no reputation” is incorrect. He was introduced by Steve Seabolt, VP for global brand development at Electronic Arts. He also appeared on Oprah. And you know what appearing on Oprah can do for anyone.

    You also said “He had nothing to guarantee an attentive audience other than a particularly timely lecture and a death sentence of pancreatic cancer.” Not true.

    Randy Pausch had lived a life that made you want to listen. To have accomplished what he accomplished earned him a standing ovation before he even spoke.

    I would say Randy Pausch is the best example of how to live a meaningful life, but Barack Obama was the #1 communicator of 2008.

  4. A. M. K. He says:

    You’ve articulated an interesting case supporting Pausch as the best communicator. I agree that his framing and overall presentation of ideas in the lecture is a model from which we can all profit. However, we need to consider the definition of a ‘communicator’ and then re-evaluate speakers.
    My working definition of a communicator is one who has a *reasonable* amount of information to communicate and *seamlessly* utilizes technology to convey it to an audience. Pausch’s “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” (aka “The Last Lecture”) is a compelling view for any number of different reasons, chief among which is it is entertaining and poignant. However, at almost 90 minutes in length, it is too long. A week after the first viewing Pausch’s speech, how much does the average viewer remember of *most* of the points he was communicating?
    As for the seamless use of technology to present the ideas, his speech fails on two glaring points: his use of the microphone
    and his failure to confirm
    the technical support level prior to making the speech. His microphone
    is not positioned correctly. It seems attached to the open placket of his polo shirt which is not completely buttoned up. After his spontaneous display of push-ups at the beginning of the speech, the weight of the microphone pulls the placket to one side so the microphone is aimed toward his chest and not his head/mouth. Even after his wife readjusts it for him, its position isn’t completely corrected. This poor microphone placement makes his voice come across as muddied and muffled at times, and we can hear the microphone brush his shirt at one point.
    A good communicator needs to have all his/her technology aids in optimal condition prior to the date of the speech. When Pausch shifts gears and shows video of previous class projects, he seems hesitant and uncertain about whether the venue’s projection system (including the audio system) can work with his videos.
    Problems with positioning microphones correctly and using them professionally abound on the Internet. On at least 70% of the presenters don’t have the microphone placed correctly, so the microphones picks up their breathing, their popped ‘p’s and sometimes a brushing or two against clothing. At least two TED presenters accidentally dislodge their earpiece microphones during their presentations!
    During the US presidential campaign last year I can remember at least two Obama speeches where the lecturn microphones weren’t positioned correctly, too.
    Good communicators refine their skill at honing their message so it can be appreciated fully by their audience. They edit out distracting details from their speech so they can stay on-message as much as possible. They should also hone their use of technology.

  5. Linda Schellenberg says:

    I agree 100%.
    Randy Pausch definitely earns the #1 Title. His speech will be remembered for years to come and will be still relevant years from now.

    On the other hand, Obama’s speaking ability received much greater praise because his opponent’s were so bad. But thinking back to the many times I heard him speak, the only message I can recall is “Change is coming”. He’s just not memorable.

    In my opinion, it’s unlikely in my lifetime that any ordinary person will touch the hearts of millions the way Randy did.

  6. Good analysis. I also tend to steer away from political figures when talking about best communicators. A communicator should be someone who can handle themselves in any situation – not only the keynote addresses most politicians give. Who would be some of the best debaters ? George Galloway would be very high. How about comedians then? They communicate in engaging ways. George Carlin. We need to think of communication and public speaking in a much broader lens beyond just politics.


  7. Tracy says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the top ten speakers, scandal/bad speakers, and Obama’s oratory skills. I really enjoyed Randy Pausch’s book, and thought he demonstrated an innate ability to tell a good story. Overall, this is a great commentary.

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