World renowned motivational speaker, author and television personality, Lesley C. Brown, was in Nigeria recently, on the invitation of telecommunications giants, MTN, to speak at the MTN Enriched Lives Seminar. He visited four of the nation's top universities and also came in contact with a number of Nigerians. His experience changed his perception of the people of the most populous black nation on earth as he tells in this interview. Excerpts…
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Les Brown. I am an author, speaker and also a speech coach. I teach people how to effectively tell the story to influence and impact audiences and to advance the causes and missions they believe in. I was born in a poor section of the United States, Miami Florida called Liberty City. It is drug-infested and extremely poor, with a great deal of violence. I was born and abandoned on the floor with my twin brother. We were rescued and when we were six weeks old, we were adopted by Mrs. Mannie Brown.
Why public speaking?
I am involved in this area of speaking, training and self empowerment because I am a product of it. When I was in the fifth grade, I was labelled mentally retarded. I was brought back from the fifth grade to the fourth grade and later failed the eight grade and I had no college training.
But I had a high school teacher who taught me the value of effective communication skills and working on your mind. He said, “Develop your mind and develop your communication skills, because once you open your mouth, you tell the world who you are.” And I have been travelling and speaking around the world for over 40 years now. I am 65.
Why are you in Nigeria?
I am in Nigeria for the second time. I was here in April 2009 at the instance of MTN and what really fascinates me about the work that I am doing with MTN is that the people now have an opportunity to enhance, enrich and empower themselves by having access to information, with this new technology they have with their 85:20 telephone. And that is very fascinating to me because for the first time in the history of the world, poor people have access to the same information that wealthy people have. And they interact through social networks, they can reach things that entertain, enjoy themselves and, more importantly, give them access to information that allows them to transform their lives and transform their communities to make a greater impact on their career professionally.
What about your twin brother?
My twin brother is into security. He works in a prison as a security guard and he also does work in his community and in his church. Ours lives are totally different. He has never ever attended a motivational seminar or workshop. He has only listened through about three or four of my speeches. My mother adopted seven kids and none of my brothers and sisters is involved in the work that I do in terms of upgrading their relationships, seeing the value of reading and listening to motivational messages or going to seminar. I'm like an alien to my brothers and sisters. It’s like I am from another planet. But they are proud of me. They look at me as an exception as opposed to an example of what is possible for them too if they engage in the same process.
You never had college education, what was the process?
Number one is that you have to be very clear about the goals you want to achieve. They have to be goals that are beyond your comfort zone and what is very important about that is, you have never done that before, you have to become someone that you have never been. You don't get what you want to get in life with what you are. Once you become clear about the goals you want to achieve, the next thing that is very important is research. You start studying and following all the directions of the things that you want to achieve through developing yourself in order to become that kind of person. If you want to go from one country to another, you have to get a map or get in contact with someone who knows there very well, so that you can be able to know how to get to your destination. So, you need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, a game plan and an action plan that will allow you to develop yourself into the person that you need to become in order to achieve that goal. This is the same process in achieving any goal. You also have to be around like minded people, people who think like you think and people you look up to; people who have already achieved what you want to achieve; people who are always reaching and striving to achieve; people who are always smarter than you are; people that you can learn from; people who as a result of your relationship with them, you will be able to give birth to that part of you that you are not aware of.
That means you should always probe into yourself to find out things that are there which you don't know?
Yes, absolutely! You discover those things by attempting to do things that are beyond your comfort zone, things that you are passionate about, and things you want to accomplish. Then, you start pursuing those things, you start working on yourself, you start learning the things that you don't know so that you can discover the things that you need to know that will give you access to this new life and in the process of doing that, you become aware of the other abilities and talents that you have which you are not aware of right now.
You have been a motivational speaker for 40 years and you are 65 years old now, at 25. What were the experiences that made you start?
I was a disc jockey for many years and I was involved in broadcasting and then I went from dee jaying to become a state legislator. I was elected to the higher legislature in Columbus Ohio. When I was appointed to the chairmanship of the Human Resource Committee, my mother became ill with breast cancer. I resigned to go back to Miami to take care of her to fulfil a childhood dream and while there, I had to determine how I was to earn money to pay her medical expenses and that's when I decided to become a motivational speaker.
How many times were you elected into the legislature and at what age were you first elected?
I was elected to the legislature three times. Now, about the age, I am not good with numbers. It is interesting I can tell you thousands of quotes and statistics in studies, but I don't know years and I don't know what room I am in at this hotel. Somebody has to always tell me. I don't know why. That's very weird. It is a fascinating thing, but I don't know how to break it up in years. But if you in the course of this conversation ask me, what's one of the most important quotes Malcom X made? I will say he said “The resolution is within you. That if you don't change, there will not be a revolution.”
What is something that Booker T. Washington said? Booker T. Washington said that, “You have the power to achieve your dreams. It is important that you can with what you have and not give up.” And I can give you quotes and statistics and studies, but I can't give you times or numbers or hotel room numbers.
How then do you find your hotel room?
I find something to write it down with or ask whoever is with me at that time or I go back to the front desk to ask the receptionist.
Has it been like that all along?
The thing is that I do that which I am fascinated about. I read two to three books a week because that is my fascination. When I got into this area, there was nothing like an African-American male speaking to white audiences which comprise the majority of my customer base. So, to develop myself as an intellectual resource and to have a reach over white speakers and their employees who have years of experience with PhDs and MBAs and credentials that I don't have took a lot of study and development on my part to establish myself and my reputation. I became singularly focused on the knowledge that I needed to accomplish my mission.
What is the process of your preparation as regards speaking to particular audiences?
When I became involved in public speaking, I knew that I had to spend plenty of time to study what would be most effective in how you can change a person's mindset in the course of a presentation. How can we change the human mind through verbal communication? Two, having a range of knowledge and skills to come in and do an assessment and find out what the audience needs to hear. Because I don't believe that one speech fits all situations, so I do research. When I came to speak for MTN, I developed an MTN presentation and it was dramatically different from the last presentation. So, the speaking industry has been governed by a course that trains people to “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you have told them”. I train speakers from my perspective. I teach and train speakers, “Never let what you are going to say get in the way of what your audience needs to hear.” Find out who they are. Conduct communication intelligence, ask questions in order to get a good understanding.
What do you find unique in your Nigerian audience?
What I think that is unique in the Nigerian audience than any other audience that I have spoken to is the cultural predisposition to train and to influence and impact. And what I mean by that is: I spoke at four colleges. I have never had the opportunity to speak to an audience that was so respectful and had such a committed listening. Nigerian youths, children and adults have a cultural training that is mind boggling to me. Because they listen at a very deep level towards what you say, while with other audiences that I have spoken to, it is not as deep, it is not as committed, it is not as focused and concentrated. They listen to each word as you speak. That is fascinating to me as a speaker. I love it. It is the best audience on the planet. That's very unique. I have only seen that here and I have never seen that anywhere else, that's why I am coming back.
Before you came to Nigeria, what was your perception of Nigeria?
I sought to find out what MTN wanted me to do. So, what I wanted to find out was one: How viable is advising students and adults to invest in themselves, to have access to technology, to a telephone that can give them access to information. Once I found how valuable that was, not only in terms of using it for social networks and communication, but also today at this time in our history, this is a knowledge-driven world. Knowledge is the new currency. So, to me that's very fascinating because everyday people now have access in the palm of their hands to information that will allow them create new opportunities for themselves; To create relationships with other like-minded partners. Students can get together and do home work and to advance themselves academically so they can create a network where they can communicate to find out the opportunities in the industries where they can work upon graduation or even while in school. So, that to me is very fascinating. We have never had that sort of technology before. When I started speaking 40 years ago, there was nothing like Twitter or social network, YouTube and all the things that allow people to connect around the world.
Do you concentrate more on the message instead of the people?
Both. Because you have to see how it applies. Take for instance, Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world. Is it because they don't have knowledge; they don't have the resources or that they don't have the wherewithal in order to create wealth? Absolutely not! What the technology does is that it gives the same access to the same information to the rich and the poor. So, the everyday person has the chance to duplicate the same accomplishments that the successful ones have.
Without a public speaking appointment at the back of your mind, what was your knowledge of Nigeria?
My knowledge of Nigeria was that of a cut-throat nation; a country with no integrity; a dishonest people; people who have the reputation of being ruthless in how they do business, as a violent place; as a place that one would be fearful of and never desire to come. Many of my friends tried to discourage me from coming here. They told me 'you are crazy. You are going to Nigeria? You must be out of your mind'. One of my eldest daughters said, “I am sorry dad, I can't squeeze a decapitation in my schedule. They cut people's head off.” I said come on. You can't believe CNN which stands for Constant Negative News. You can't buy into that kind of stuff. So, because of the way the media portrayed Nigeria, most people you ask about Nigeria, nine times out of ten, you will hear a very negative story about Nigeria and also from Nigerians. The same things that I hear from people externally is the same thing I hear from Nigerians and that is one of the things that I am very passionate about that I think particularly that this year that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Nigeria, that a new story needs to be told. The story of Nigerians as hard working people; who are people of integrity and passionate and have power and intellect.
I have spoken to more black people in Nigeria than I have spoken in the United States for 40 years. And so you have people with an unstoppable desire to want to get to the next level. There's poverty here, but there's spirit here. Nigerians almost have a zero desire of taking their own lives. Nigerians are not suicidal. Nigerians believe that tomorrow will be better in spite of poverty, corruption and people not doing what they are supposed to do in order to make them great. At some point in time, trust me, things will change.
Are you going to take back this message to all the people that tried to discourage you from coming to Nigeria?
Absolutely. In fact, when I get back on my website, I am going to show all the pictures and all the things I experienced and give another view of Nigeria different from what's being portrayed in the news. I think it is a travesty because of this incident with this young man who by the way was not born in Nigeria and was not trained in Nigeria to make Nigeria the face of Al Queda. It is a tragedy to classify Nigeria as a terrorist state and that story must be counteracted. Faith comes by hearing and hearing even if it is a lie and one of the biggest challenges that Nigeria is facing right now is not having a voice in the national arena. And I am talking about voices outside the political arena. One of the things we plan to do is to create a thousand innocent voices of hope; Nigerians who are experiencing uncommon grace and success with the spirit and drive and hunger to create a new life; Everyday Nigerians that the world never hears about, who the world never sees and never reads their stories. We are going to tell their stories.
What is your message to the Nigerian youth?
My key message to the Nigerian youth is that they should become clear. What are the goals you want to achieve, professionally, what are the kind of legacies you want to leave and most importantly, what's the new story that you are going to create with your life that will reflect the real Nigerian?