Throughout human history, there have been great communicators. Some have been lost to time, some only exist in the words they wrote or spoke before audio and video recordings, and some have become integral parts of our culture today. With the advent of modern AV technology, more and more cornerstone moments in communication have been captured. Add the Internet to that equation and many of those moments are now accessible anywhere, any time.
In this post, I’ll take you through a collection of some of my favorite communicators and some of their best moments. As the old adage goes, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” In this instance, you are the communication artist stealing from the masters. What you will notice is that all of these great communicators have some similarities: mastery of vocal variety, incredible transparency, imagery, humor, and more. These skills are within reach of any human (yes, that includes you!), and I hope that you see ways to authentically incorporate these skills into your own communication.
We all know Steve Jobs and his life and career. There’s a very good chance that you’re reading this on a device he helped invent and produce in some way. Not only was Steve Jobs a technological genius, he was also a master communicator. He created and perfected the modern product launch event, which had the power to draw the eyes of millions. In this clip from 1997, he gets insulted while on stage and returns the insult with powerful pauses, brilliant thoughts built on top of each other, grace, and humor.
When someone mentions Oprah’s name, you can immediately hear her voice, which is so famous that it has spurred countless memes and cultural milestones. Beyond the memes lies a career that includes acting, interviewing, hosting, producing, writing, media ownership, and advocacy. Oprah’s career is singular, never to be matched. With this speech at the 2018 golden globes to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award, Oprah sparked a rumor once again that has followed her for years: that she should run for President of the United States.
One of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali was also a presence that could not be contained. His verbal skills were as adept as his boxing skills: he could punch, jab, duck, and knock you out with only his words. Most powerfully, his use of vocal variety and humor led the way whenever he spoke. In this clip of a 1974 news conference, he uses pauses, power (volume), and rhyming to share his magnetic personality and thoughts.
In this clip from 1969, Mr. Rogers is before the congressional committee that oversees funding for PBS. Mr. Rogers starts off his comments while dealing with a sarcastic and showboating congressman and deftly handles his interruptions. Amazingly, he convinces that congressman in real time to stop considering funding cuts for PBS. It’s a masterful speech that speaks to the power of letting your audience take in what you’re saying by going at a slow pace, employing clear and well-structured ideas, and allowing love and authenticity to lead.
Although most people know her as Catwoman from the original Batman television series, she only did five episodes of that show. Beyond that iconic turn, Eartha Kitt played countless roles on stage and screen, was a brilliant singer, was an activist, and an abuse survivor. In this clip of an interview with Terry Wogan in 1989, Eartha talks about her incredibly painful childhood with zero filler language, precise enunciation, mastery of and comfortability with pauses, and deep vulnerability. I’m not suggesting you share your most painful experiences to be a better communicator, but this is a model of how to handle strong emotion while public speaking. *This clip may be triggering to abuse survivors.*
In this jaw-dropping display of persuasive speech, James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley Jr. about race in 1965 at Cambridge. He’s able to harness his extraordinary intellect in order to express his ideas in a clear and concise way, despite the pain and personal experience of the topic of race relations in America. The proof is in the pudding in this recording. The all-white audience behind and around him sit rapt, hanging on his every word, to thunderous applause once he’s finished.
These are all great people, not only because of what they’ve accomplished but because of how powerfully they were able to speak about the work they did and the ideas they cared about. We all have the capacity to be as powerful, magnetic, clear, and memorable in our communication. It may take time and lots of practice, but each of us in our own way can achieve new heights in our communication by studying and striving to be as good as those who came before us.