The top 10 business speakers in the world (and what you can learn from them)

Who are the great contemporary business speakers working today? In compiling the following Top Ten list, I followed a couple of rules. No celebrities, no politicians, no reporters. The idea was to find real business speakers talking about business. I also avoided a few obvious choices that have been around for a number of years, like Tony Robbins, in favor of some newer, more current messages and messengers. In the end, of course, the list is personal and meant to provoke a discussion, not to end one. The list is not a ranking—just my current 10 favorites.

I’ll start with a certifiable rock star of the business speaking circuit: Tim Sanders. Check him out telling a story about Timberland from his new book, Saving the World at Work.

What makes Tim a good speaker? He’s passionate about his subject, putting love back into any workplace where it’s lacking. That means taking care of your workers, taking care of your community, and taking care of the environment. And he’s all about the audience. Tim has that charisma that comes from a genuine focus on the audience and a real concern for how his listeners are doing.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last, is my second pick. He doesn’t speak in public all that often, but when he does, he’s worth hearing. He’s a brilliant, charismatic speaker, because he embodies the 2 secrets of charisma: focus and passion. Most people think that charisma is something that’s innate, something you’re born with, as if there were both charismatic and uncharismatic babies.

Well, guess what? All babies are charismatic. So the question you should be asking is how do adults reconnect with the charisma of their youth? And the answer is: focus and be passionate. As Jim Collins does. Collins perfectly demonstrates that charisma here.

Few of us have climbed a mountain or won a top sales prize, so those that have done so are worth paying attention to for what they have to say. Fewer still have climbed a really big mountain, like, say, McKinley, or won a President’s Club award—the kind that go out to the very best salespeople. But I can only think of one person who has climbed the highest mountains on each of the 7 continents (yes, that includes Everest), and won 11 President’s Club awards over a 23-year corporate career: Susan Ershler, my choice for great contemporary business speaker #3.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Susan is back at sea level telling us how she did it—and how we can achieve our own personal “Everests” through the same combination of vision and application that she used to get her to the top of Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, McKinley, Cerro Aconcagua, Vinson, Kosciuszko, and Everest, along with top sales achievements at US West, United Technologies, FedExKinko’s, and Verizon. There’s a video of Susan speaking at her website, but the best way to experience her story is to see her in person.

No list of great contemporary business speakers would be complete without Seth Godin, my #4 choice. You can see him here, talking about marketing to Google a few years ago.

Seth has an extraordinary ability to take complex topics and break them down, explain them clearly, and make them appear simple. That’s the essence of great marketing, and it’s why so many of Seth’s books have been bestsellers, from The Purple Cow to Tribes.

Guy Kawasaki, at #5, epitomizes Silicon Valley cool—he’s a former Apple employee, now a venture capitalist. He’s written books on entrepreneurship that eschew grand theories in favor of practical advice: The Art of the Start and Reality Check. I recommend both highly if you’re an entrepreneur or you have those cravings.

Guy is warm, unpretentious, straightforward and funny. He warms up slowly in this speech, but once he’s cranking, he’s got the audience, he’s dishing out insight after insight, and cracking jokes as he goes. It’s a great performance.

For my sixth pick of great contemporary business speakers, I’m going with David Meerman Scott. You can check him out at his website. There are links to his blog, which is consistently interesting, as well as video to watch of him speaking. Particularly note the book launch speech at SXSW 2009 for his new book, The World Wide Rave. His previous book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, continues to be a bestseller and it was that book that first propelled David onto the national and international stage as a speaker on a ‘must-have’ subject, the new social media and viral marketing.

Anyone who isn’t thinking about social media and the Internet in marketing isn’t thinking. It’s that simple. David is riding an extraordinary wave of change, and he’s worth hearing for the intelligence and energy he brings to the subject.

At #7 is “One of the Most Influential Women in Technology” according to Fast Company. Charlene Li is an accomplished speaker on the subject of social media—the topic of her notable book Groundswell (Harvard Business Press, 2008) and her research. You can see her speaking on interactivity and social media here.

Charlene was a VP and analyst at Forrester Research and a Harvard Business School graduate before she launched her own company, the Altimeter Group, last year. She is a thoughtful, engaging consultant and speaker and she practices what she preaches—interactivity—through Twitter, her blog, her research, and her speaking.

For energy and passion on a subject that is important for everyone interested in the future of the human race to rally around, Steve Farber is hard to beat. He’s my #8 pick. You can see Steve speaking here and here.

Steve gets his message—that each of us should take on someone and help him or her become greater than ourselves—across with parables, a much-abused format, usually full of cheese and penguins, but used in a sophisticated and grown-up way in Steve’s books.
Check out the message and get to work helping someone in your workplace or your life become greater than yourself. The ripple effects will come back to you in unexpected and wonderful ways. Steve’s message is a genuine, heartfelt, transformational gift to the world and it deserves a wide hearing.

No top-ten list of great contemporary business speakers would be complete without Marcus Buckingham, #9. Marcus is a phenomenon—a polished speaker able to project a poised, conversational, comfortable demeanor on small screens and in big halls, and a bestselling author several times over. You can see him speaking here and here.

Marcus comes out of the Gallup organization, and he bases his work on one simple claim from years of Gallup polling and research: you’ll do better to focus on your strengths (and your employees’ strengths) rather than trying to fix your (and their) weaknesses. He has that great skill possessed of a few: the ability to take reams of data and complicated psychological insights and ruthlessly pare them down into a very few key concepts.

My final entry in this top ten list of great contemporary business speakers is a sentimental favorite: Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson is passionately devoted to spreading creativity around, first in education, and then in the rest of human endeavor. I’m wholeheartedly with him on this project; it’s a life-long cause of mine too. He’s written two books on the subject: The Element and Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.

Robinson gave a marvelous plea for creativity in schools and more broadly in life at the TED conference. The talk is funny, thoughtful, and quite well-written in spite of appearing conversational and casual. Check him out and get inspired.

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