Putting policies & politics aside, who have been the best communicators of the 12 US Presidents & UK Prime Ministers since the 1980s?
Presidents and Prime Ministers as leaders of their respective nations have an awesome responsibility to convince, cajole, convey information, connect, and communicate with the people they serve in order to advance their vision for the country.
Some have been very effective. Others are hardly even in the game. So, who are the best and worst communicators of the modern Presidents and Prime Ministers?
Why since the 1980s? Two reasons: (i) it’s in my lifetime of the ones I actually remember (ii) enough YouTube footage!
(I will have to turn this into a Top Twelve World leaders at some point, but I haven’t done enough research yet)
In the meantime, if you’re into public speaking, you’ll like my Free Video Course: Why Most Speeches Suck & How to Make Sure Yours Won’t!
The 5 non-scientific criteria I’m using to judge these Presidents and Prime Ministers on their communication skills are: How effectively could they…
- give a speech that was equal to the needs of the moment?
- empathise when engaging with people
- respond to tough questions with impressive answers
- articulate their vision on issues clearly and compellingly
- convince people who don’t already support them
So here goes (in reverse order)
12. Theresa May
Any arguments from anyone for putting Mrs May (the Maybot) in last place? Let me know and I’ll flesh out my reasons. Otherwise, let’s not waste too much time on the easy ones.
11. Gordon Brown
Brown probably suffers by comparison with his immediate predecessor, Tony Blair.
But to paraphrase Churchill (who short-sightedly didn’t make sure all his speeches were captured in YouTube) “never has so smart a man said so much smart stuff and made so little impression on so few people”
Brown just never managed to translate the complex workings of his big brain into language that resonated with common folk.
And it was worse when he tried to smile!
10. George H. Bush
When your most famous comment (“read my lips, no new taxes”) is a phrase that revealed yourself to be an untrustworthy politician, you know you’re on shaky ground.
Bush Snr is another in our list of Presidents and Prime Ministers that suffers by comparison to his more illustrious predecessor.
His main problem as a communicator is that there really wasn’t anything much you could say for or against him. He was bland. He didn’t give any memorable speeches. He answered questions accurately but not engagingly. He did not ever articularte any vision worth fighting for.
No surprise then that he was one of the few one-term US Presidents unlike his son, who he was exponentially smarter than.
9. John Major
When your caricature is a dull grey ‘spitting image’ puppet, that says something about how interesting you are as a communicator.
John Major was an intelligent, capable, solid leader. He said the right things. He often did the right things. But he was dull (my goodness he was dull) and that means his weighty words often carried very little weight.
Nothing wrong with his performance. Just nothing much inspiring about it either.
As it happens, since leaving office he has developed quite a degree of gravitas, which has given his speeches a much greater sense of authority. But it’s performance in office that counts for this list, I’m afraid.
8. David Cameron
I found David Cameron one of the most difficult of the Presidents and Prime Ministers to place.
On the one hand, he was highly articulate and he looked the part. He became the leader of his party by giving an excellent speech without any notes.
On the other hand, his communication was generally full of platitudes and inoffensive niceties masquerading as a vision – unsurprising for a former PR man. He was good in the House of Commons but generally against weaker opposition (when he was against Blair, he rarely laid a glove).
And then there is Brexit. Whatever side you were on, there can be little doubt that his ‘Project Fear’ messaging before the Brexit vote heralded possibly the worst campaign in British political history. And then his ‘See ya, suckers’ resignation speech after the vote was lost would make it into my Top 3 list of examples of leadership cowardice.
Dave was a nice guy. People broadly liked him, even if they didn’t particularly revere him so that has to count for something, I guess. But not that much.
7. George W. Bush
Some may question why “W” is not bottom of this list. Believe me, if intelligence was part of the criteria, he would be #13 in a list of the Top 12.
But buffoonery aside, George W Bush actually had his moments as a communicator.
Some of his speeches during the whole 9/11 period were almost Churchillian. Really!
If, one of the criteria is the ability to capture the mood of the moment, in that time, at that moment, he did it. You forget, for a period of time, he had an astronomical 92% approval rating (of course, it didn’t last!).
And his ‘Islam is Peace’ speech only days after 9/11 must surely be one of the most empathetic speeches ever given by a President effectively at war.
Finally, by all accounts, he was an incredibly personable man with a strong common-man touch which led many who knew him personally to show him great loyalty. In a way his bufoonery made him human and accessible in a way that his father completely lacked.
Impossible to ignore some of the stupidity that came out of his mouth though
“They misunderestimated me.” George W Bush
No George. We really didn’t!
(If only George W had had a public speaking course to help him! Luckily, I know just the Free Public Speaking Workshop that might help
6. Margaret Thatcher
The Iron Lady was a force of nature. She was loved and hated in equal measure.
She makes it to the 6th spot of this list in large part due to the work and determination she put into becoming an excellent public speaker.
She took public speaking classes (including voice pitch lessons which helped her develop that unmistakable Thatcher voice).
Against a backdrop of immense male chauvinism, she assumed an aura of formidable authority that lent power to her words and helped her shape the narrative of the politics of the day.
She was a formidable House of Commons performer. And even those that violently disagreed with her politics (as I confess I did), could not disagree that she communicated her positions clearly and forcefully.
”I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.”
“Nobody would remember the Good Samaritan if he had only good intentions. He had money as well.”
And then my personal favourite because it distilled the complexity of running a country’s economy to basic principles that ordinary people could understand
“Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”
And winning three elections to become the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century at the time, says a lot about her ability to convince people to buy into her vision.
5. Donald Trump
Quite easy to identify The Donald’s qualities as a communicator once you ignore the craziness.
He loses points because of his inability to stay on message and respond with coherent statements to anything other than the simplest question. He also scores poorly on the ability to convince people that don’t agree with him.
What takes Don so high up the list is his unparalleled ability to tap into the instincts and emotions of the so-called ‘forgotten man’ which, in 2016 in particular, represented a vast tranche of people’s across not only the US but the Western World.
He demolished the norms and standards of public speaking that would have defeated other politicians, which meant he was able to elicit deep deep admiration and adulation whilst basically say whatever he wanted.
In an age of duplicitous politicians, his ‘say what you really think’ brand was disruptive genius.
4. Barack Obama
Barack is my guy! I confess that he is my personal choice as #1 leader. But this isn’t that list. So, I shall resist the urge to wax lyrical about undoutedly the coolest leader in history.
The pros: No one can do the set piece stadium speech like Barack. That baritone voice, that musical cadence, that soaring oratory. If the only criteria were the ability to give a great speech, this wouldn’t even be an article worth writing, he would be Number 1, 2, and 3 on the list.
Charisma? Obama was probably also the most naturally charismatic of the Presidents and Prime Ministers.
And his 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner Speech (complete with roasting of Donald Trump) is certainly the funniest Presidential performance ever.
But I like to assess Communicators by first taking away their superpower and then looking at what’s left. Once you do that, it’s easier to spot some inherent weaknesses.
- he was too aloof and professorial to be a man of the people. Sometimes people do need things dumbed down and Obama never did dumb, unlike his successor who was all dumb!
- he lacked fluency when dealing with live questions. Listen out for his numerous his ums & ers during press conferences. His answers were always good, but his disfluency in his responses compared to his fluency with the TelePrompTer often made him come across as uncertain
- too often he came across as indecisive. What should have been a strength (the fact that he thought deeply before making decisions) was ineptly messaged by him so that it just came across as indecision, which undermined the confidence his country should have had in the actions he eventually took
Am I being too picky? Possibly, but when we get to this top level, little points make a big difference.
3. Bill Clinton
How do you make every single person in a packed auditorium feel like you are speaking just to them? There is no manual for that? But that’s exactly what Bill Clinton was so good at.
To make it into our Top 3 of our Presidents and Prime Ministers list, as well as the core qualities of a speaker, you also need a superpower. Bill’s was his ability to use and scale intimacy.
He had a folksy style that made you feel at home, like you were having a chat with a pal over a drink. His natural timing and pacing conveyed a sense of empathy, even when speaking on a complex topic.
And of course, he was a superb storyteller, probably the best of the lot (though like many public speakers, it was a studied rather than natural skill).
Bill pulled you in with a sincerity that just carried you with him.
How else could he get away with lying about ‘sexual relations’ under oath, and still come out more popular than he was before? Seriously, you know he did it. He knows he did it. But watch him deny it and tell me it still doesn’t make you question what you believe.
2. Ronald Reagan
(putting my personal political emotions aside was really tough with Big Ron)
Yes, he was an actor. But to dismiss Ronald Reagan as an actor is to miss the entire point. Being a great actor on screen doesn’t make you a great speaker. All those terrible Oscar winners speeches attest to that.
He could sell big ideas to anyone including those that disagreed with him. His infectious positivity made you feel good about yourself; and he knew how to deliver a line (boy did he know how to deliver a line) that cut through the verbiage to the heart of the issue:
“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
“It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”
He was also an excellent debater, and his response to questions about his age during the presidential debate with Walter Mondale remains, in my opinion, the best-recorded response in any leadership debate in history.
One tiny criticism that kept him from the top spot for me was his lack of versatility. Much like the actor that is always typecast, Reagan always played Reagan. But that is a minor complaint because that slight flaw was also intimately bound up with his great superpower: He made you believe!
Ronald Reagan had a unique ability to make people believe in him, in yourself, and his vision of the USA as the ‘shining city on the hill’.
That is why they called him “The Great Communicator”
1. Tony Blair
Shocking, I know. But remember, we are ignoring all policy and politics, which means scratch the Iraq War from your mind!
With that brand contamination out of the way, take a fresh look at Tony Blair, and what you’ll find is a master communicator, who basically had it all.
- He could do the big set-piece speech (only Obama surpassed him). Just watch his final Labour Party Conference Speech of 2006.
- He could do man of the people down-to-earthiness (on a par with Trump) – look back on the adulation with which he was greeted by ordinary people in the first years of his premiership
- He basically invented the modern political soundbite (watch Brown to appreciate how easily this can go wrong) as a devastatingly effective way of controlling the political narrative
- he was a consummate performer in the House of Commons (perhaps only Thatcher was better), which is also why I place him higher than his American counterparts, who simply did not have to deal with the hotbed cauldron that is Prime Minister’s Question Time
He did sincerity (almost as good as Clinton). He told jokes (with only Reagan and Obama doing it better). And he was supreme at control the visuals.
He seamlessly transferred allegiance from Clinton to George W. Bush and made it look genuine, which highlighted his ability to adapt his messaging to the needs of the moment.
And even when it comes to the Elephant in the room, the Iraq War, you have to respect the skill (some would say lies) with which he convinced a fundamentally anti-war country to support the wat (easy to forget that there was majority support at the start).
That he won another election even after the disaster of Iraq had become apparent only enhances his communication record further.
Will he ever get credit for that? Unlikely, and that’s his own fault. His legacy is forever tarnished by the arrogance and hubris he has shown over the war even decades after when it was open to him to show some contrition. But once again, this isn’t relevant for this particular list.
Perhaps I am a little biased since he is the only person on this list I have personally met back in 1990 (and I pegged him as a leader even then). But in my humble opinion, of all the Presidents and Prime Ministers since the 1980s Tony Blair was Numero Uno, the Head Honcho; Top of the List!
OK. I’m done. Now you can shoot!
p.s. interesting questions is which of the other world leaders since the 1980s would make it into the Top 12 of greatest communicators of the world?