1 Sen. Barack Obama: Obama-mania! He burst onto the scene with one speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He has kept up his impact in the high-risk, high-profile arena of politics — so much so that he deserves to be the top communicator of 2006. Obama is one of the few politicians whose one name captures the experience of the person, such as Oprah, Bono and Madonna. And Obama might be the real deal. He looks his interviewers and public in the eye, holds himself tall, and yet remains informal and humble in stance in posture. He’s great on talk shows. Yes, he’s a real candidate for the presidency, maybe because there’s a weak field. 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.
2 Pastor Rick Warren: Coincidentally, Rick Warren had Obama at one of his major AIDS conferences, and that’s the first thing Obama talked about when he was on “The Tonight Show.” Warren is also smart, and truly one of the greatest communicators in print and in 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, 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, he does not formalize his conversational tone and manner, no matter how serious the subject. Promoting his PEACE project (Planting churches, Equipping leaders, Assisting the poor, Caring for the sick, Educating the next generation), he is mobilizing the world on an international level to fight AIDS. And he just might do it.
3 Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi: It’s not just the results in being in line to become the first female speaker of the House in the United States that makes Pelosi so impressive. It’s what she has had to do to overcome — and 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. (Disclaimer: I coached her.) 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.
4 Commander Israel Gaither: Newly elected national commander of the Salvation Army in the United States, Israel Gaither has absolute conviction and high-level communication skills. Thus, he overcame the odds. The first African-American commander, 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’s 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 more than 3 million officers, employees and volunteers and a $2.6 billion budget.) Gaither’s biography is titled “Man with a Mission,” so it’s likely you’ll be hearing a lot more from him.
5 Angelina Jolie: Finally, a movie star who is now known as much by what she says, and how she says it, as by being beautiful. Under the 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 10 best list last year — and look what just happened to him.
6 Nido Qubein: The only repeat from last year’s Ten 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 multimillionaire businessman who gives away his millions, he also is president of High Point University in North Carolina. It is there that he has single-handedly inspired his team to transform a university in less than two years. One hundred 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.
7 Guy Kawasaki: 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’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: 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,” and is authentic to boot. Smileyis 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.
9 Jim (“Mad Money”) Cramer: Perhaps Jim Cramer is an odd one for the top 10 list, since he is the outrageous TV host of “Mad Money.” I originally lumped him with Borat and Will Ferrell. 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. 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, taking risks. Being small benefits no one. Being large can inspire thousands.
10 Jon Stewart: 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 conversation 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. He will be back.
Bert Decker is CEO of Decker Communications, Inc. (deckercommunications.com), based in San Francisco, and blogs at deckerblog.com. Decker’s list of the Ten Worst Communicators will appear tomorrow.