About Jonathan

The question that I hear most, no matter to what age group I’m speaking to is, “How and why did you become a professional speaker?” Okay, let me break it down:

You Always Remember Your First

My first speech was in the fifth grade for a district-wide Black History Month speech contest. I did a rousing 5-minute discourse on the legendary scientist George Washington Carver and famous ventures with the peanut. Although I can’t remember too much about the speech, I can vividly remember how nervous I was! To this day, I can recall saying to myself from the platform, “Why are all these people staring at me?” I loved the rush, but didn’t really enjoy hearing my amplified voice come out of the speakers. I thought I sounded like a girl. And I did. I won third place though.

The next year, my dad and I put together a killer speech, complete with visual aids — framed artwork of King Tut and a portrait of my father. I put them side by side in front of the podium. The speech was entitled “What’s in a Name?” I lectured on the importance of people of color calling themselves African-American versus black. “I am just as African as King Tut was African,” I said, pointing to the picture on the left (I have since relaxed my naming preference). I went on to explain how although my father (pictured on the right) was American, my forefathers were straight up African. The speech itself was head and shoulders above the rest…but…those good ol’ nerves got the best of me again. I was so nervous, my knees were shaking. I tried to get control of myself and by grabbing the podium…and the podium began to shake. I held it in until the end, when I misread one of my lines. I went silent. I looked out into the audience and there were the people, staring at me again.

“Uh, I mean, uh…”

I fumbled through the last three lines of my closing and raced behind the curtain. I was so mad, I headbutted the base of the marble pyramid that I was using as a prop. I chipped the pyramid and put a hickie on my forehead.

Low and behold, I won first place in the contest, narrowly edging out Frederick Douglas and Michael Jackson. I was ecstatic, but on the inside I knew I could have done better.

What’s Left?

During my teenage years, I sought to find my “thing.” The thing I could be known for. The thing that would make me popular. But Mother Nature severely limited my options. I couldn’t hit a curveball, I was so skinny I could Hula Hoop in a Cheerio, I was deathly shy, I had pimples decorating my entire face,  I had a three-inch verticle, I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t have a lick of rhythm. I couldn’t even rap! I was the anti-stereotype for black men. Was there any place in this world for me?

Read on.

My mother had an impact on my aspirations. As a lifetime career educator, she always had her finger on the pulse of the goings on within the local educational environment. Instead of watching primetime television, she would watch school board meetings on the access channel.

“Now that guy really knows what he’s talking about,” she would say. “He speaks so eloquently and defends his points like an expert.” I would take note of what the “good speakers” would say, how they held themselves and how they created a desired response from their audience. My mother would make similar comments when she saw a TV evangelist that she particularly liked. Her praise was always directed at how articulate the person was and how he or she could deliver a substantive message, not religious rhetoric. One by one, the seeds were being planted.

When I was about 15, the Black Heritage Club at my high school decided to put on a Black History Month presentation (Lord, where would I be without Black History Month). Everybody signed up for a part in the one-act play. I volunteered to give a keynote address. To make a long story short, I dusted off “What’s in a Name?” figuring that an older, more mature me could finally deliver the talk with mastery. I didn’t. It sucked. I was nervous…again. My knees made me shake like Elvis. I stuttered like a human typewriter. It’s a bad memory. Let’s move on.

It was a bad experience, but one that taught me an invaluable lesson. I learned that if I could just practice a little more, I might be able to get to a point where I would be able to use this skill in business. I still had no clue about what I wanted to do in life, but I knew that there were three things that I needed to be happy: I wanted to dress up in suits like my dad, I wanted to travel the world and I wanted to help people. I also knew that I loved to be funny and entertain, but I wasn’t talented enough in the traditional media to pursue any of them. I was clear on what I wanted, I just didn’t know how to do make it happen.

Then in the 12th grade, a guy came to speak to our government class. His name was Ronnie McDonald. I instantly was drawn to him, partly because he was a well dressed, articulate, African-American male and partly because he too had a funny name. Ronnie spoke about how America’s pluralistic and multicultural society had gone from looking like a bowl of Cheerios to a bowl of Fruit Loops. I had never seen a young black man in person that was so engaging. Now, just to give you a clue on how taken aback I was, I still remember all of Ronnie’s speech, but I don’t even remember the name of the professor in whose class I was enrolled. For the first time in my life, I had a real, live role model.


Fast forward to my junior year of college at the University of Texas at Austin. By this point, my interest in speaking had really blossomed, though I didn’t know how or if I could ever do it for a living. In college, they stressed getting good grades so that you could get a “good job,” so my focus was on Corporate America. You know, board meetings, stock options and 401(k) plans. From what I gathered, you had to be a celebrity to get invited to speak somewhere, since those were the only people that I cared to go see when they came to my campus. Under that premise, I was far from qualified.

And then it happened.

As a student leader, I was responsible for coordinating and hosting conferences for the students on campus. Every semester, there was always a major production that required a big-named speaker to deliver a keynote address. There was one speaker in particular that changed the course of my life. It wasn’t because of what he said, it was because of how much we paid him to speak! We gave him a check for $5000 for his talk that morning and then rushed him to the airport so that he could do another talk that evening…for another $5000! What? If that wasn’t a great way to make a quick buck (or ten thousand bucks), I didn’t know what was. I made up my mind that I was going for it, period.

A lady who worked in the recruiting office in the Texas Business School got my name from one of the deans and gave me a call one day. She asked if I’d like to be a part of a small group of students that would travel across the state along with her to convince perspective students to come to Texas. She saw it as a resume booster. I saw it as platform time. I accepted and thus began my career in public speaking.

I added jokes, anecdotes and audience participation to my segment. It became the highlight of the school’s overall presentation. With time, I noticed that my nerves were finally calming down and I was able to replace my stage fright with energy and passion. I didn’t mind people staring at me anymore. I loved it! I also learned that I had a natural ability to command the attention of a crowd and keep people involved and interested, no matter what I was talking about. After a presentation on Parent’s Weekend (which was my largest-ever audience at the time, 200), a guy came out of the audience and handed me his business card. “If you’re this good now, give me a call when you graduate and you’ve got yourself a job.” OH YEAH!

The love affair was born. When I was worn out from studying, I would walk around campus by myself at night, rehearsing my lines for the next recruiting event or trying to imitate something that a broadcaster or minister said on television. Sometimes, I would walk across campus to LBJ Auditorium, the venue that hosted events for the big-time speakers. I would walk to the front, stand at the podium and give a passionate, heartfelt keynote address to the 1,500 empty seats. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “One day,” I would say, “One day.” (Interestingly, packing the house at LBJ Auditorium is still an unrealized dream for me. But it will happen, trust me. One day.)

By the time my senior year rolled around, I had been all across the state, speaking to parents and students from all backgrounds, evangelizing the gospel of UT. I was having a blast. Best of all, I had racked up invaluable time behind the podium.

My final presentation for the Texas Business School was at Dell Computer Corporation, which was ironic because I had just accepted an offer to work for them upon graduation. There were about 250 parents and students in the audience that evening. I was wishing there could have been more. All the other presentations had been for the school. This one was for me. I figured, “Hey, I graduate in a month. What are they going to do, fire me?”

When my turn came up, I said, “Folks, I hope you come to UT…but if you don’t, I just want you to remember three things: who you are, whose you are, and where you’re going.” From there, I proceeded to give a ten-minute motivational talk. I got a standing ovation from wall to wall. I could have flown home that evening, because I was sailing on a cloud.

A local high school’s FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) advisor was in the audience. She asked me to do their end-of-year banquet. It was official. I was in demand. I spoke for a spaghetti plate and a certificate of appreciation that was printed on someone’s computer. But I was in demand.

Training Day

Studies have shown that communication is over 85% non-verbal. My job as a tele-salesman was 100% verbal, so I only had 15% to work with. I learned very quickly that those with good phone skills could make it in the company. Those that didn’t, wouldn’t.

I learned about a group called Toastmasters International and joined the Dell chapter. Toastmasters teaches you how to deliver speeches and think on your feet in front of an audience. Because I had done several FBLA conferences by this time, I thought I was very well versed in the realm of speech crafting, but the practice would do me some good. Boy, I had a lot to learn.

Toastmasters really helped me refine my skills and my confidence on the phone began to soar. We gave out blue ribbons for the best speaker in every meeting. I think I had a streak of 18 straight, or something like that. I would take the ribbons and pin them up around my cubicle. Eventually, I became known as “that Toastmaster guy” because of my decorations.

When I became a District Champion in Toastmasters, I really looked more seriously at doing more speaking. I was making a lot of money at Dell, and I really enjoyed my job, but I knew that there was more to life than getting a paycheck. Although I was used to having money, I quickly learned that money wasn’t everything. My passion was for people. I wanted to help young people navigate their way through those odd years and the feelings of worthlessness that I, too, had experienced. I had a calling on my life, and it was on the outside of the comfort of my corporate job.

Tipping Point

So it was time to get serious. I put together a demo CD (which I recorded in my friend’s kitchen). Then I called up one of my buddies who did design work for UT and he put together a tri-fold brochure for me. I listed seven programs on it, even though I only had enough content for one speech. The rest were only titles. I didn’t want to have too much blank space inside, so I just…got creative. I sat down after work for a solid week and took the tutorials for Dreamweaver, a popular web design software, and started building a website…featuring my fake speeches. My girlfriend at the time had to help me get the site online. I had no clue about the Internet. She wasn’t an expert, but she knew just enough to get me started. Good enough. Let’s roll.

I dropped brochures off around town at schools and got a few engagements. A lady from UT called me and asked me if I could do a Saturday workshop for 400 high school students for one of their gateway programs. Great! She asked me to do one of the speeches for which I had a title but no content. “Um…yeah…sure. I can do that,” I said. I hung up the phone and my mouth dropped.

I was screwed.

Then one day after work, I was making a turn onto my street and the title Who’s Driving” came to me. I looked over at the empty passenger’s seat thought about how this was a great analogy for life. We have to be accountable for our success and failures. We have to be drivers in our own lives! Then a wave of ideas hit me. All of a sudden, years worth of content from studying,reading and analyzing all rushed into my mind at once. My heart was racing so fast, I was overwhelmed. When I made it home a few minutes later, I sat in the car because I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even stand up and walk inside. I tore off a small piece of paper and tried to capture this amazing flood of ideas. It was like the speech was writing iteself. All I had to do was move my hand and let the words flow. Within 10 minutes, the entire speech just…came to me. Almost effortlessly, I had created the talk that eventually became the most requested talk among youth audiences (it eventually was titled Beep! Beep! Who’s Got the Keys to My Jeep). It was the weirdest experience.

The speech was great, and I continued to speak wherever they would allow me to in the evenings and on weekends. I eventually ran an ad in a national youth newspaper (An ad that I designed myself, mind you–I took the Photoshop tutorial, too). I got a call from an organization in Maryland that wanted me to speak for their teen group. This program was sponsored by the Army. It was the last chance for the kids before they were hauled off to juvenile detention center. These kids were going to be tough. I was used to speaking to honor roll students!

Although I played it off (well, I tried), this was my first out-of-state engagement, so I didn’t know what to expect. I wore a Sprinklisms t-shirt, linen pants and sandals. Sandals? Yes, sandals. I was so focused on not messing up, I paced around the bathroom for 15 minutes before showtime. I was so focused (aka-nervous), I forgot to take my sunglasses off  during my speech! With my linen pants, sandals and sunglasses, I looked like I was the keynote speaker for a Royal Caribbean.  Fortunately, the kids were great and were very forgiving of my ineptitude. Personally, I think they were just glad to be inside, versus doing combat drills in the field. I conducted a dance contest for them at the conclusion of my talk. They loved that part more than they loved the speech itself. On the evaluations, they wrote “The speech was okay. The dance contest was great. We could have used better music though.” Wow. Thanks for the love. I deserved it though. But the experience made it all worth it. It taught me that even so-called “bad” kids can be great when you engage them at their level and give them great support.

As I got better with Photoshop, my ads looked increasingly professional, and the calls began to increase as well. Within 12 weeks, I was going out at least once a month to speak around the country. In my mind, this was the good life. I definitely wasn’t as good as I thought I was, but I was getting a little better every time.

During a conversation with one of my friends, Dr. Tyrone Bledsoe, asked if I had been to a NACA (National Association of Campus Activities) convention yet. They are the country’s largest college conference for booking acts. Although I hadn’t even heard of the organization in my life, I looked them up and it just so happened that in two weeks they were going to have a regional conference just three hours away. I had no clue what to expect, nor did I know what they were expecting from me. I had my trusty brochures though!

I put my Photoshop skills to the test and created a 6 foot banner for my booth at the conference. I took some pictures from previous speaking engagements, made a PowerPoint presentation, and away I went. Just to show how little I knew about the college market, when a student came up to me and asked how much I charged, my eyes got huge and my mouth dropped. “I forgot to ask how much people charge for colleges gigs!” I just looked at the girl and said, “Um…can you come back in about 15 minutes. I need to get my table set up.” I started fumbling under the table, pretending to look for something, even though there was absolutely nothing underneath it. I went around to other booths, inquired about their fees, took the average and declared it to be my price.

God has been with me from the beginning, that’s for sure. One school actually agreed to bring me in…at my new price! The biggest treat that I got from that conference, though, was when I met the lady that would eventually become my agent. She was just getting started and so was I. It was a match made in heaven.

Over the next few months, my youth engagements began to grow and my agent began to get me established in the college arena as well. Of course, there was a problem with this—I was missing a lot of work. My manager was very supportive of my endeavor, but it wasn’t fair for my teammates to have to cover for me and get their work done as well. The heat was on.

I ducked, dodged, made promises and basically bribed my coworkers to watch my accounts while I was out speaking for the next few months. On the speaking side of life, things were shaping up really well. I was intoxicated with the satisfaction of knowing that I was impacting so many young men and women across the country. I felt, maybe for the first time, that I was doing what I was meant to do in life and that I was walking in my purpose. And then came the tipping point.

I came home from a week in Florida where I spoke at four different schools. I had several checks in my hand. I was PAID! I was on top of the world. I was…wondering if I should be doing this full-time. I figured, if I could have a week like this every week of the year, I’d make ten times more money than I did at Dell (Yeah right. That never happens). I decided to be spiritual about it and pray about my direction in life.

“God, I know you’ve called me to touch lives,” I said. “So, when do you want me to leave Dell and become a full-time speaker?”

“May,” God said. It was currently the beginning of April.

“What? Maybe you’re confused about the calendar. May comes just after April. That’s only 30 days from now,” I retorted.

Then I heard something I will never forget for the rest of my life. “Why did you ask the question if you didn’t want the answer,” God spoke to my heart.

I was so confused. I mean, I knew that eventually, it was going to happen, but…now? Come on! After much thought, consideration and wise counsel, I changed my prayers from checking to make sure if He was serious to simply accepting what He said and asking for the courage to go through with it. And I nervously did.

I packed up my ribbons and my trophies and made my way off into the world, starting my quest to become Mr. Big Time Speaker.

Obviously, there is so much that has happened since that momentous day, but surely I will have to catch you up on all of that later. I hope I have adequately answered your question.


Facebook Comments: