Les Brown

Motivational speaker Les Brown (born 1945) made his name encouraging others to overcome any odds that might stand in their way.

Les Brown has a dream, and he is living it. In 1986, broke and sleeping on the cold linoleum floor of his office, he began to pursue a career as a motivational speaker. By the early 1990s, he was one of the highest paid speakers in the nation. His company, Les Brown Unlimited, Inc., earned millions of dollars a year from his speaking tours and the sale of motivational tapes and materials.

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Brown’s audience is wide: from Fortune 500 companies to automobile workers to prison inmates to special-education classes to ordinary individuals. His mission is to “get a message out that will help people become uncomfortable with their mediocrity,” he explained to a reporter for Ebony magazine. “A lot of people are content with their discontent. I want to be a catalyst to enable them to see themselves having more and achieving more.”

Brown’s message works because “he kindles the warmth, humor, and well being in a society that’s seen the gradual disintegration of families and mounting technology and alienation in industry,” Maureen McDonald wrote in the Detroiter. Brown knows the function of the able individual in a worn community: he delivers not only nurturing words but money as well, donating 20 percent of his business revenues to fund drug prevention programs. His message also works, and for a stronger reason, because he is not an outsider, an academic who offers a theoretical prescription. “I can’t lecture on something unless I am living it,” Brown wrote in his 1992 bestseller Live Your Dreams. He connects with other people’s lives-their misfortunes and missed opportunities-because he has been through it all and triumphed.

Teacher Encouraged Him

A major lesson Brown imparts early in Live Your Dreams is that “there comes a time when you have to drop your burdens in order to fight for yourself and your dreams.” It was another significant figure in Brown’s early life who awakened his listless consciousness and brought about this awareness: LeRoy Washington, a speech and drama instructor at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami. While in high school, Brown “used to fantasize being onstage speaking to thousands of people,” he related to Jones, “and I used to write on pieces of paper, ‘I am the world’s greatest orator.”‘

But it wasn’t until he encountered Washington that he truly learned of the sound and power of eloquent speech to stir and motivate. Brown related in his book that when he once told Washington in class that he couldn’t perform a task because he was educably mentally retarded, the instructor responded, “Do Not Ever Say That Again! Some-one’s opinion of you does Not have to become Your reality.” Those words provided Brown’s liberation from his debilitating label. “The limitations you have, and the negative things that you internalize are given to you by the world,” he wrote of his realization. “The things that empower you-the possibilities-come from within.”

Employed after high school as a city sanitation worker, but determined to achieve what he desired-perhaps for the first time in his life-Brown pursued a career in radio broadcasting. He had been enthralled throughout his life with the almost music-like patter of disc jockeys, so he repeatedly bothered the owner of a local radio station about a position until the owner relented. Having no experience, Brown was hired to perform odd jobs. Firmly intent on becoming a deejay, he learned all he could about the workings of a radio station. One day, when a disc jockey became drunk on the air and Brown was the only other person at the station, he filled in at the microphone. Impressed, the owner of the station promoted Brown to part-time and then full-time disc jockey.

Became “The Motivator”

Brown read books on public speaking and studied the habits of established speakers. He first spoke to grade school students, then high school students. Clubs and organizations followed. Less than four years later, in 1989, he received the National Speakers Association’s highest award-the Council of Peers Award of Excellence-becoming the first African American to receive such an honor. He was known in professional circles as “The Motivator.”

“Victories can become obstacles to your development if you unconsciously pause too long to savor them,” Brown wrote in his book. “Too many people interpret success as sainthood. Success does not make you a great person; how you deal with it decides that. You must not allow your victories to become ends unto themselves.” His goal was not just to win awards, but to inspire people to pursue their own goals.

In 1990, Brown reached for a wider audience by recording the first in a series of motivational speech presentations for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS-TV). He conducted motivational training sessions not only for executives of corporations such as American Telephone and Telegraph, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble, but also for prison inmates and-remembering his own back-ground-for special education students in high schools. “We all have a responsibility to give something back,” he told a reporter for Upscale. “I am who I am because of the relationships I have developed, because of the people who have enriched my life.”

Brown details his life and the relationships that have helped shape it in his book Live Your Dreams. Much more than a simple autobiography, the book, which is divided into ten chapters followed by written exercises in a built-in workbook, focuses on areas of personal deficiency-such as fear, inattentiveness, and laziness-as well as on areas of personal value, such as self-knowledge, courage, and dreams. Brown makes vague, personal faults understandable and ambitious virtues attainable by elaborating on them through personal or historical narratives that are almost parable-like. He moves easily between the ordinary and the extraordinary to emphasize his point. For instance, a discussion about a boy who was scared of a bulldog that constantly chased him until he realized the dog lacked teeth might be followed on the next page by a discussion of how basketball superstar Michael Jordan handles the pressures of being a public persona.

“I am intrigued by the concept of selling people on their own greatness with the same fervor that Madison Avenue sells them on the wondrous attributes of Nike athletic shoes, Chevy trucks, and Calvin Klein jeans,” Brown wrote in Live Your Dreams. “What if our young people heard encouragement to dream and strive as many times a day as they are exhorted to drink Dr. Pepper or to go to the land of Mickey Mouse?” Brown got his chance to answer this question and share his philosophies with his widest audience ever when his own television talk show, the Les Brown Show, debuted in the fall of 1993. It was short-lived, despite receiving good ratings. The program, which was Brown’s most ambitious project to date, was syndicated by King World, the same company that distributes the popular Oprah program. “I think people are ready to be entertained and inspired and I want to make them feel good about themselves,” he explained to Jefferson Graham of USA Today. “I want to use TV in a way in which it’s never been used before-to empower people.”

Books Became Best-Sellers

On August 29, 1995, Brown married Gladys Knight, the famous soul singer, in a private ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada. They both had been married previously and between them had ten children and seven grandchildren. The next year, Brown released his next book, It’s Not Over Until You Win!: How to Become the Person You Always Wanted to Be-No Matter What the Obstacle, which covered a wide array of topics ranging from his marriage to the quality of television. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, “This volume successfully translates Brown’s natural charisma from the podium to the page.” His two books together sold more than half a million copies.

After the cancellation of his television show, Brown briefly went to work for radio station WRKS in New York then, in October of 1996, was hired on as morning host at WBLS, also in New York. However, in May of 1997 he announced that he would be leaving his job to spend more time on his speaking career and to undergo treatments for prostate cancer. He and Knight announced the next month that they were divorcing due to irreconcilable differences, though he claimed the two would remain friendly.

Into 1998, Brown’s empire remained strong; he was reaping about $4.5 million per year from speaking engagements and television appearances. His Detroit-based firm continued to serve high-profile clients such as Chrysler, 3M, and Xerox Corporation. “Downsizing trends and the changing global market require people to reinvent themselves and think like entrepreneurs,” Brown stated in Black Enterprise. In addition, Brown was branching out to train future public speakers, concentrating on promoting the field to more minorities.