Great communicators can influence change, whether political, cultural or in business. From Winston Churchill to Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs to Martin Luther King, history is full of individuals who, through their words and deeds, have shifted public opinion and behavior. Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, and the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffet are all hailed as great communicators – no argument here. President Obama’s communication abilities are absolutely phenomenal. Mr. Colbert, through humor and wit, scores political points and creates cultural references (“Truthiness” anyone?) that resonate with legions of fans. And of course, it’s not just the financial public that eagerly anticipates Warren Buffet’s yearly shareholder letter – Main Street does too.
These people are always on “most influential” lists for good reason. This 10 Powerful Living Communicators is about living people who have sparked “change” and so the list looks beyond these usual suspects. I’m sure you’ll miss some favorites like Starbuck’s Howard Schultz and Bill Clinton – both consummate communicators. A shout out has to go to Reverend Al Sharpton – controversial for sure, but without his ability to stir a crowd would George Zimmerman have been arrested?
Let’s shake things up a bit and consider some other people whose ability to change the world, shape opinion, or use innate creativity to leave a long lasting cultural mark are unique. What this diverse group has in common is their ability to reach people emotionally, shift attitudes, and spark trends. There’s something we can learn from each of them about our own ability to make a mark. This is not an academic list – it’s a list from a PR Agency owner.
In no particular order, here’s my list of the Top 10 Living Communicators Who Influence Change:
* Chris Anderson: Founder of the popular TED Talks, Anderson is a visionary who figured out a way to make speech giving sexy, widely popular, and powerful. Getting an invitation to do a TED Talk is the gold standard when it comes to speaking engagements. Anderson’s ability to spread the message of famous and little known thinkers, scientists, writers, philosophers, and activists remains unprecedented. Who else could have made it possible for 8,660,010 people to hear what Sir Ken Robinson said about the creativity-killing nature of school or 8,087,935 to share in Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight?” To date more than 290 million people have tuned into or attended a TED Talk. Take-away: Generosity with ideas can change people’s lives.
* Mark Zuckerberg: The story of Facebook is now legendary (not to mention a major motion picture, The Social Network). Zuckerberg co-founded the social-networking website from his Harvard dorm room. It proved so popular he ditched school in his sophomore year to focus on building the site, which now boasts more than 250 million users worldwide. Oh, and the risk has made the 28 year old a billionaire in the process. Facebook has also changed the way people communicate with each other – groups of people with common interests can find each other, people who could never hoped to have met in “real life” have become actual friends. Of course, the site has also spawned addictions to checking updates and playing a variety of games. Facebook has truly become part of the fabric of our lives. Take-away: Good ideas are worth taking a risk on.
* Oprah: This media mogul is much, much more than a talk show host – she is an ultimate communicator who has reached millions of people through her television shows, movies productions, a network (which admittedly still needs work), magazine, and “Lifeclass” seminars and webcasts. Her enthusiasm can sell an obscure novel or a new shade of lipstick – Oprah’s endorsement of a product has literally build brands overnight. She’s so well known and widely respected that you don’t even have to use her last name. Why? Because people trust her – she’s built that trust through honesty, passion, and the ability to reveal herself, including the painful episodes in her life, in a way that resonates with people. Take-away: Respect your constituents by practicing integrity, honesty and authenticity.
* Jay-Z: Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, Jay-Z is the most financially and culturally successful hip-hop artist, rapper, songwriter, producer and entrepreneur in the world. According to Forbes, his net worth is about $450 million and he’s sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. He also has 14 Grammies under his belt, and there are surely more to come. When he presided over Def Jam, Jay-Z signed the now mega star Rihanna, and helped Kanye West transition from producer to popular recording artist. He communicates through the fashion world too, with his successful Rocawear line that caters to both adults and children. A film company, upscale sports bars, and part owner of the New Jersey Nets rounds out his impressive portfolio. As he rapped, “I'm not a businessman/ I'm a business, man” – This man sparked the international hip-hop movement. Next step: The Billionaire club. This communications agent for change is well on his way. Take-away: See beyond the trend to the bigger picture, and capitalize on it.
* Roger Ailes: The man has changed the news business – say his name at a Manhattan cocktail party and you’ll get a range of reactions – from open disgust to whispered appreciation. Ailes is a polemic, combative figure to be sure, but he also changed the face of the news business when News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch brought Ailes to Fox in 1996 to start a news channel that could compete with CNN. Ailes reportedly made a bold promise to Murdoch – that he could get FNC staffed and operating in six short months – just in time to go head to head with another entry into cable news, MSNBC. Skeptics, including Murdoch, were in abundance, but Ailes launched the network within the time frame and by 2002 it was beating CNN in the ratings war regularly. By sensing a need for another point of view and a different way of delivering the news, Ailes struck a chord with the public that has stuck. According to Nielsen Media Research, as of 2012 FNC continues to outpace both CNN and MSNBC combined in total viewership. You can’t argue with success. Take-away: When you see a need, fill it.
* Lady Gaga: She communicates through music, fashion, and art. An American original – no performance or outfit is ever the same; she’s the ultimate re-inventor. This diva’s communication skills don’t end with her ability to influence pop culture – she’s also proven herself to be a compassionate and intelligent speaker, starting with her powerful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” speech in Maine. Only 26 years old, her movement and her time may only just be beginning. Take-away: Don’t be afraid to be yourself, and express your originality.
* Tony Robbins: The intelligentsia might criticize this self-help master – but who cares? Robbins’ gifts as a motivational speaker, bestselling author, “firewalker,” and success coach is unparalleled in the personal development business. Starting out with little in the way of education or financial resources, he began by promoting Jim Rohn’s career seminars before embarking on his own work as a self-help coach. Now, he’s an international phenomenon with success that his colleagues dream about achieving. More than 4 million people from around the globe have participated in his programs, lectures, workshops and one-on-one sessions, including George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Anthony Hopkins, Pamela Anderson, and Quincy Jones. Robbins walks his talks – and has proven his dynamic philosophy works. Who knows how many great communicators he has spawned. Take-away: Believe what you say and others will too.
* Richard Branson: The mogul might be best known for his Virgin Group of more than 400 companies, including an ultra hip airline – and that’s saying a lot since most airlines suffer from dismal customer service and dreary on board accommodations. He’s also a consummate adventurer and world traveler, whose attempts to break world records and pull off PR stunts for his brand in air balloons and boats have captured the imagination of admirers the world over. He invests his time and money in many personal causes as well – from encouraging entrepreneurship (he still considers himself one) to improving economic conditions in South Africa to saving the lemur in Madagascar and the polar bear in Canada. In the process he’s been able to bring attention – and funds – to causes that might be lost without his efforts. While he has claimed that he has to force himself to deliver speeches, when he does you can hear a pin drop. No one wants to miss a word this mega-brander has to say. Take-away: If you want to grow, don’t just work on your business; work on the business of your business.
* Benjamin Netanyahu: The Israeli Prime Minister is an iconic figure – the epitome of a strong, passionate leader with an unwavering commitment to the survival and strength of the Jewish state. His speech in front of AIPAC in Washington this past March is but one example of his incredible oratory skills, and his ability to argue a point gracefully even while pointing out the errors of those with whom he disagrees. “For fifteen years, I’ve been warning that a nuclear-armed Iran is a grave danger to my country and to the peace and security of the entire world. For the last decade, the international community has tried diplomacy. It hasn’t worked. For six years, the international community has applied sanctions. That hasn’t worked either. I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran. These sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, but unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward. Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation,” he told the AIPAC crowd, who stood numerous times to give the Prime Minister thunderous applause. He follows in the footsteps of the founder of his movement, Ze’ev Jabotinsky who was regarded as one of the greatest speakers ever. Take-away: Have convictions, and stick to them.
* Jack Welch: He has been called the greatest CEO in America. In practical terms, he earned the name because of General Electric’s unparalleled record of earnings growth and over more than two decades while he was chairman and CEO (1981-2001). He has attributed his success to an ability to focus on solutions and execute them using the right people. In order to do that well, you have to know how to communicate a message and at that Welch is a genius. His secret? “In leadership you have to exaggerate every statement you make. You’ve got to repeat it a thousand times… Overstatements are needed to move a large organization,” he told Thomas Neff and James Citrin in their book Lessons from the Top. Of course, you have to back up works with action – otherwise what you say will never be taken seriously. Today, when Welch gives a speech he embodies true American optimism and risk-taking. Take-away: Words are most valuable when backed up by deeds.
Of course, for many of us the top communicator for change is ourselves – no one is stronger than us in influencing change. Listen to yourself and affect change.