In last month’s edition of InsuranceNewsNet, motivational speaker Les Brown inspired us with his story about battling cancer and he told our readers how to “Master your Mind” to overcome doubts and accomplish anything. For most people, public speaking is either their biggest fear or their greatest asset in life. Speaking isn’t just about public speaking, it’s about communicating. From one-to-one to one-to-many, there is usually a direct correlation between one’s speaking ability and one’s income.
If you have seen Les Brown speak from the stage at Million Dollar Round Table, watched him on PBS or caught a glimpse of him speaking on YouTube, you would see an incredibly charismatic and larger-than-life persona that few speakers possess. His energy moves and inspires crowds to reach for their dreams and accomplish their goals. He has earned a string of awards from organizations ranging from Toastmasters International to The National Speakers Association, which awarded Les its top honor.
Les wasn’t always a master speaker. In fact, it might surprise people to learn that Les was not a natural in front of large crowds. In Part 2 of his discussion with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Les tells how he went from being tongue-tied to terrific in front of crowds and how to find the voice that your customers and audiences want to hear.
FELDMAN: Most people are frightened to get on a stage and speak in front of a group, but you dazzle many thousands at a time. How did you develop that skill?
BROWN: I worked up to it. I could speak to small groups as a trainer. That is what I do best. Then one time, Dr. Charles Adams, a minister I admired, came to one of my trainings in Detroit.
When he came in, I said, “Man, I have been admiring you for years.” He invited me to come to his church the following morning and I said, “Absolutely.”
The next day, the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church was packed with around 3,000 people. Dr. Adams had the ushers bring me down front. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a motivational trainer, a young man by the name of Les Brown.” Then he said, “Mr. Brown, would you come up and give the morning prayer?” I said, “Yes, sir.” At that moment, I panicked. I’ve prayed with my kids. I say grace at the table. But I’ve never prayed in public in my life.
I walked up. I said, “Let us pray.” Everybody bowed their heads. I bowed my head and closed my eyes. I said, “Thank you, Lord, so much for this morning. Amen.” Then I sat down. After about 30 seconds or more, somebody opened their eyes and said, “The devil had his tongue.”
I went to see Dr. Adams at the end of the service. He wouldn’t see me. They said he was very busy.
So, the word went out. “They called up this guy up, Les Brown, to do the morning prayer, and he just closes his eyes and says, ‘Lord, thank you so much for this morning. Amen.’ The shortest prayer in the history of the church.”
When I left there, I sat in my car. I said, “This will never happen to me again. I have to learn how to speak.”
FELDMAN: How did you overcome your aversion to public speaking?
BROWN: I knew I was good in small groups, but I could not bring myself to think and to speak and to be confident before a large audience. I met a speaker named Mike Williams, who is my mentor to this day. I told him, “I’ll give anything to speak like you.” He said,
“I’ll teach you.” And he taught me.
Because of Mike’s teaching, I’ve gone from speaking to one person to speaking to more than 80,000 people in the Georgia Dome.
Mike helped me to begin to recognize and conquer my inner restriction. I would just freeze when I would stand before a larger audience. My mind would empty out.
In fact, at the Georgia Dome, I made the mistake of looking out at the audience before going out on stage. Then I ran and hid in a restroom. My friend Dexter Yager came to the restroom and said, “Brown, are you all right?” And I said, “No. I have to get myself together.” He said, “The band is stalling. They need you to come out. We want to introduce you.”
Then my mentor, Mike, said, “Man, come out of the bathroom.” I said, “I can’t, Mike. I don’t know what to say. My mind is empty. I can’t think. My heart is beating real fast. I’m having shortness of breath.”
Mike said, “Brown, are you scared?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Brown, listen to me. They came to see you. You didn’t come to see them. All I’m asking you to do is get the microphone, maintain eye contact with me, and pretend you’re in your living room. I’ll be down front.”
So, when I came out of the restroom and we’re walking toward the stage, I said, “Will somebody pray for me?” And so they stopped, and they prayed for me. Then I remember going up the steps and somebody asked, “Do you think he’s going to be all right?” And Mike said, “Yes. He’s going to be just fine.”
I went up and gave a speech called “It’s Not Over Until I Win,” and that has become the biggest seller in the history of speeches. That speech was driven by fear.
FELDMAN: You have said that a meaningful message depends on not only understanding your listener’s story but also using your own story. What did you mean by that?
BROWN: Doing an assessment to determine your listener’s needs is the key to becoming more impactful when communicating with someone. One of the things that I strongly believe is to have a stream of thinking where you: tell them what you’re going tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them.
Find out what the audience needs to hear. Never let what you want to say get in the way of what they need to hear. Then look at aspects of your own story that you could use to distract, dispute and inspire. All of us have things that we’ve gone through and knowledge that we’ve acquired. Use those things as a tool to distract your audience from their current story. How we live our lives is a result of the story that we believe about ourselves. And so, what we do with our story is to distract the other person from listening to their story.
Whether you’re talking to a person one on one, or whether you’re talking to an audience, they all have a conversation going on in their head. As you execute and deliver your story, you dismantle the audience’s belief system. Through that experience, through your energy signature, you inspire your audience to make new choices with their lives. So, the value of your story is that people do business with people they know, like and trust. You have to establish a level of trust and confidence immediately by telling your story in a way that the person will begin to identify with you. Then you create a bond, a connection.
Many speakers miss out on the opportunity to speed up that trust and that bonding process because they don’t take the time to learn how to tell their story strategically and experientially. Often, their presentations are filled with information. If information could change people, everybody would be skinny, rich and happy. You must have a way in which people can identify with you, and you have to be able to go through the mind and touch the heart.
Words spoken from the heart enter the heart. Those words will have far more influence on an audience or an individual.
FELDMAN: How can a salesperson speak from the heart and make that connection with a stranger?
BROWN: First of all, I would let a person know why I do what I’m doing. When I was a salesman at Sears, I would introduce myself and then say: “I’m so glad that you’re here. I came to work in this department because I love the products. I love the Sears brand and my work gives me an opportunity to meet positive people just like yourself. Tell me, what color do you like?”
If the customer was looking at a coat, I would not ask, “May I help you?” I would compliment them and tell them I’m excited about being there. I want to find a way to open up the conversation. Most of all, I want to let them know that I’m here to serve them, and I’m excited about the opportunity to do that.
FELDMAN: That’s a good example of positive attitude, which is central to all that you do. In fact, your book, It’s Not Over Until You Win, is all about a winning attitude. How does someone develop that?
BROWN: The most important victory that one could ever have in life is the victory over yourself. For 14 years, I was losing the battle with Les Brown. There’s an old saying, “If there’s no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.” When I do sales training, the training is focused on the seller. I don’t focus on methods and techniques.
I don’t focus on going back to the basics. I focus on the seller because when you face rejection again and again and again, it begins to take a toll on you. That past is tied up in your inner dialogue.
In the movie Magnolia with Tom Cruise, there’s a line: “We might be through with our past, but our past is not through with us.” I believe that how we perform and how we show up in life has a great deal to do with our internal dialogue, or what psychologists call our self-explanatory style. Many times, when things happen to us, we unconsciously beat ourselves up.
A study said more than 87 percent of our negative self-talk goes undetected by the conscious mind. So we have to monitor ourselves and we have to work to keep up a sense of optimism and possibility. We have to overcome that inner conversation that says, “I can’t do that.” I look at my own life. I was born on the floor of an abandoned building in a poor section of Miami called Liberty City. I was labeled educable mentally retarded and put back from the fifth grade to the fourth grade. I failed the eighth grade and I have no college training. I could not see myself having anything of value to say to someone who had a college education. I had a tremendous inferiority complex.
Then I met a man who was a very effective communicator. He was a speech and drama teacher, and he asked me to do something in school. I told him that I couldn’t do it, but he insisted. And the kids in the class started laughing. He said, “Why don’t you follow my direction?” I said, “Because I’m not one of your students.” He said, “Do what I’m asking you to do anyhow.”
Then a student said, “He’s Leslie. He has a twin brother Wesley. His brother is smart, but he’s DT.” The teacher said, “What’s DT?” The student said, “He’s the dumb twin.” And I said, “I am, sir.”
As the class erupted and laughed, he came from behind his desk and said, “Don’t you ever say that again,” as he pointed at me. “Someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.” In that conversation, he distracted me from the label that I had bought into. He inspired me to believe that I was someone other than the “dumb twin.” That conversation impacted me. It gave me a new identity for myself.
When you are able to come to the mindset that “I can make this happen,” you’re able to accomplish things you never realized you could do. The key is winning the victory over your inner conversation. It’s being able to challenge yourself and raise the bar on yourself every day. We must win that mental game that we play with ourselves that says, “I can make this happen.”
When you do that, you discover that you have a drive. You have a passion. You have determination. You have a willingness to stay in the game. You have a mental resiliency that will propel you to new heights that you could not achieve if you did not conquer the inner demons that stop all of us from achieving our goals.
FELDMAN: In a crowded field of motivational speakers, how did you distinguish yourself?
BROWN: With any audience, you have to conduct communications intelligence. I noticed that 99 percent of speakers had a memorized speech and they would go back and give it over and over again. Perhaps it was a great speech for one particular audience, but the speakers had the mindset that one speech fits all situations. I didn’t believe that. I was looking for a way to make myself to stand out. I encourage anybody who is involved in sales or speaking to answer the question: What is it that you can do that could make yourself stand out?
Henry David Thoreau said, “Do not go where the path may lead, but go where there’s no path and leave a trail.” And so, what I decided to do was simply to ask, “What is it you want? What are five things you want that audience to walk away with that would make this a successful event?” Then, I would talk to the group’s president. I would talk to the marketing director. I would find out what they are looking for.
I would arrive at the presentation early, and I would ask them to let me talk to five of the top salespeople. I would interview them separately to find out what are they doing that’s different from all the rest. Then I would talk to the people who are going to hear the speech and ask: “If you were speaking today, off the record, what do you think this audience needs to hear?”
I would craft my message from what I got from the people who invited me to speak. I would incorporate the stories, the methods and the techniques of the top five performers. I would call out their names from the stage. I would use them as examples of what’s possible for everybody. I would tell the audience that those top performers are an example of what we all can do when we’re willing to raise the bar on ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard.
I would insert the views, opinions and the feelings of the people in the audience. I would bring all that together on the stage. As a result, I would create an experience that was thought provoking, inspiring, humorous, inspirational, and motivational. I would give my audience something that changed how they were thinking and inspired them to make new choices.
As a result of the impact that I made, my audience didn’t think about the fact that this guy doesn’t have a college education. Because of the impact that I made, and the experience that I created, my lack of formal education never became an issue.
FELDMAN: What was the most awkward situation you’ve been in as a public speaker and were you able to turn it around?
BROWN: This girl invited me to speak at her school. She was the only African-
American at this school in Wildwood, Fla. When I got there, she drove me to the school, and she had me stay in the car. She ran in, came back and said, “In 15 minutes, go and knock on the back door.” So I said, “OK,” but thought this was strange.
I knocked on the back door and the principal opened up and said, “You’re Les Brown?” He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He had been expecting Les Brown, the jazz bandleader, to speak, and posters of that Les Brown and His Band of Renown had been put up all over the school.
I had extended my hand and he wouldn’t even shake it. He just led me to the stage area, walked to the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Les Brown.”
The audience applauded, but when I walked out on the stage, the applause stopped cold. I knew I had to deal with the fact that they were looking for Les Brown, the bandleader.
I saw a banner in the back of the room that said, “You have the power, and this is the moment to seize your dream.”
I stood back and said, “This is a very proud moment for you. I want you right now to give these young people a round of applause, these young people who’ve taken the road less traveled, these young people who have greatness within them. Give them a tremendous standing ovation.”
I knew they were going to clap for their kids, and they did. Then I said, “And young people, you’re here because of your parents’ love. You’re here because of the people in this audience who believed in you. Stand up and give them a round of applause.” That got them all up in there. I went on to get a standing ovation, but that was a shocker for them.
FELDMAN: That was quite the recovery. How could they resist that? You were tapping into what was important to them in particular and what’s best about people in general.
BROWN: That’s what you should always be doing.