Ubong Essien, a certified public speaker and Dean, School of Eloquence, didn’t have his career cut out for him. With a third class in Biology Education from the University of Ilorin, he seemed destined for a lifetime in the classroom. But a passion for the liberal arts would turn his destiny for good as he began a Christian magazine in Unilorin and then later, the ‘Achiever’s Manual’. Not too long, he left publishing for public speaking in 2006. Today, Essien, the first and only Nigerian to attain the international designation of Certified Professional Speaker, was bestowed honoured in United States in 2012. His school recently celebrated its 10 years of teaching the world how to speak. In this interview with Funke Olaode, the 42-year-old indigene of Akwa Ibom State talks about his path to success and the initial roadblocks
Is there anything significant about the huge statue of “unknown speaker” erected outside your office?
Well, I have been teaching public speaking in the past 10 years. I teach all kinds of people from political class to the business class. When we moved to a much bigger facility we realised that one of the things is to make a statement that reflects our commitment in business of teaching public speaking. It has been of one my dreams to have a statue to greet people that this is a home of public speaking. That is why we have the statue of “unknown speaker” and sometimes I can use the statue as a teaching aid and my students can even learn from the statue: from the hand, the gesture and eye contact. So, it is a symbol of our commitment to teach the art of public speaking.
Can we have an insight into your background?
I am Ubong Essien from Akwa Ibom. I am a certified professional speaker and the only one in the whole of West Africa and Nigeria. It is a professional attainment bestowed me on at the Global Speakers Convention in July 2012. I was born and brought up in Lagos where I had my primary education before proceeding to the Federal Government College, Ikot Ekpene, for my secondary education. My parents were entrepreneurs. My father ran an electronics business and my mum was a seamstress. They are both retired now. I attended University of Ilorin where I studied Biology Education. When I finished in 1998 I decided that I wanted to be a motivational speaker.
But Biology Education contradicts what you are doing right now. Why?
Interestingly, I was offered admission to study electrical engineering at the University of Ilorin. But after a few classes and an encounter with physics and mathematics, I told myself there was no way I was going to cope. I wanted to opt out of the department but the faculty officer refused. Eventually before the matriculation I was given a note of transfer. By then it was a little bit late and had to settle for what I could get to enable me matriculate. I settled for Biology Education because it was a four-year course instead of five years. Ironically, my parents could live with my decision because the primary objective was to have a graduate in the family. I am the first son. I was the second born but lost my eldest sister at some point while growing up. I became the first born and all eyes were on me. For them, it was the case of the first graduate in the entire clan. And I promised myself that whatever it would take I would see my education through for my parents’ happiness and that became my driving force.
At what stage did you pitch your tent with publishing?
I think communication is the real deal and communication as I was taught is sharing of meaning. Anything that has to do with talking to people or writing so they could read came so natural to me. While I was in the campus I had my media outfit on campus and a Christian publication. People embraced it and it was fun. My last two years on campus were something else and my lecturers were not happy with me for being preoccupied with this publication. My mission was to go to class, read, do the test, get a pass mark and get out. I had time more for doing the things I loved. After graduation and my youth service I started a publication called, ‘Achievers’ Magazine.’ It was on that basis that I won the young entrepreneur of the year from Success Digest in 2002 because the publication went nationwide. I was meeting managing directors of multinational companies: Dr. Christopher Kolade; Mrs. Cecilia Ibru; Mr. Segun Oni; Mr. Agbetuyi; and a host of new generation CEOs. I saw them as more of father figures and mentors.
Did anything prepare you for what you are doing now?
Looking back, my secondary education prepared me. I want to give kudos to my parents who did everything possible to ensure that I attended Federal Government College. I believe it laid a very good foundation for me especially in understanding English and my capacity to interact with people. That was what the environment was like then and I could use the knowledge at Unilorin. However, university period for me between 1993 and 1998 was also very important because I was in an environment where I was free to be an entrepreneur. Those are combination of factors that prepared me.
Having interviewed various personalities, what struck you about them?
The drive they had to achieve their goals. I have never been more encouraged than to see people who have a vision and block out all of the hindrances, discouragement and pursue their goals. As I look through all of them it just kept me on my toe that they have a vision and sense of direction for their goals and lives. And they gave it all without any excuses and that kept inspiring me that if they could do it anybody can do it.
At what exact point did you feel you had to change course from being a publisher to becoming a public speaking coach?
As an entrepreneur you tend to be taken over by things. I think it was at the height of my career as a publisher. The School of Eloquence clocked 10 recently. By 2002, I was already on the national TV giving motivational talks. When people read the publication, Funmi Iyanda invited me that it was a powerful idea and gave me a 15-minute slot every Tuesday and Thursday on live TV on what can be done to be successful and how to overcome challenges. It was aired for almost three years and it was as a result of that programme that Nigerians then gave me a nickname ‘Mr. Motivator’. By 2006, I joined the National Speakers Association in United States of America. While publishing people and organisations would call me to speak. By 2006, I said I had to be professional about it and wanted to speak in the categories of world renowned speakers. I didn’t want to be a pastoral coach but a full-blown speaker. Then, I was travelling every year for courses and conferences which could qualify me for global certification. Providence was at work and my effort paid off when in July 2012, the international designation of Certified Professional Speaker was bestowed on me at the Global Speakers’ Convention in Indianapolis, United States. As a person I feel elated and being the first makes it historical. My governor then, Godswill Akpabio, sent the Speaker of the state Assembly to represent him. In front of 2,000 people from across the world and was given some time to make a speech. They were impressed and it was the best moment of my life.
How is the school doing now?
I am currently running a postgraduate programme in Mass Communication department at University of Lagos and I am the oldest in my class, many wondering why I am in the classroom. Before now, I thought of doing so many things at the same time. It was in 2006 that I narrowed it down to the School of Eloquence. Over the past 10 years, I have taught over 2,000 people. We have senators coming to our classes; wives of deputy governors coming to our classes. We have had chief executives, senior government functionaries, sales representatives and all categories of people. So whether you are a politician, social activist, or clergyman, we teach the world to speak because it is a universal skill. So, we cater for politician and even as a sales person you need power of speech. Even pastoral circle needs a well-articulated message to carry their congregations along. Our ambition is to be the home of public speaking in Nigeria. Most of our speakers are doing public reading and not delivering speech like the Obamas of this world. As a public speaker, you are forced to read and this enhances your speech and delivery.
Do you think there is a dearth of public speaking capacity in Nigeria?
I would say yes. But when you pick the aggregation it is difficult to pick sterling speakers. Of course, we do have a few but when you spread it over our population we are still far from being there. Look at the demographic of our political class. A reason for the boring nature of our democracy is that most of our political gladiators are terrible communicators. I listened to the late Sir Tafawa Balewa speech when he visited the White House in the 60s, the English was not only impeccable but the delivery was on point. Most of the current players are poor speakers. That is why you find the tendency to run away from debate because democracy is an endless debate cycle. The capacity to articulate effectively is missing. You can address an issue and the masses can be better informed.
Any plan for the future like grooming the youth?
We do have a lot of things on our plates and one of them is catching them young. Recently, we had four students from Kings College, Lagos, competing for the first prize. It was fantastic. A lot of adults couldn’t believe that they could do it. We are visiting schools as our corporate social responsibility initiative. Every month, we engage four schools. One of them is located in Olodi-Apapa (Ajegunle). It is better to learn now than later. Our vision, God willing, is to have School of Eloquence in Port Harcourt, Abuja and three or four other places and may be on the Island because of the pressure. That is our next move.
How was your wife involved in this?
Well, my secret weapon is my wife, Patience. She has been patient with me. She has been the most important supporter that I have. She is the registrar of the school. She has a master’s degree in Education Management and obviously would want to do her own thing but she has stood by me by putting her plans on hold. A lot of credit should go to her because she has been the driving force. I am blessed to have had a fantastic wife who has supported me all the way.
You never worked for anyone. What advice do you have for young people?
They should understand that pasture is only green where it is watered. If it is watered in America it would be green. But we are in an environment where you have to water your pasture. Most of the young people who look at the other side of the fence should water where they are first. I read Biology Education and came out with a third class. The impression was that I would not be able to get a secondary school to teach. For obvious reasons, I was not always in class because I was pursuing my vision and passion. And after graduation I nurtured it. There would never a time when things would not be difficult. If you are waiting for things to get better you had better be getting better yourself. This is a country that if you lay your hand on something you are bound to succeed if you persevere.
There was a time I sent out over 40,000 letters to companies every month for three years. In fact, some companies got tired of our letters. Some even called and said stop sending letters to us. Sometimes I would meet these CEOs and introduce myself. It is like this is the man who has been harassing us and they would instruct their human resource manager to send five delegates to us; because we didn’t have money for advertisement. And, after some time we got offers from a few multinationals. Why? Because, I didn’t give up; youths should be patient and grow organically and shouldn’t adopt the ‘sharp, sharp’ approach. This generation wants an explosion. You have to plant, water and watch your vision grow. Above all, don’t digress. Be focused. That is the only magic to success.