What I learned From Charlton Heston.
Seventeen years ago, I was treated like royalty by the National Rifle Association for my work helping persuade legislators, clergy and community leaders that gun rights are for everyone. My wife and I were flown to the annual meeting of members in Phoenix, AZ where I received the NRA’s Carter-Harlon award for Civil Rights. It was there that I met Charlton Heston for the first time. Mr. Heston was still the president of the NRA then. The actor that has played famous people throughout history like Moses in the Cecil B. DeMills classic –“Ten Commandments” was the greatest speaker I have ever seen in person. I spent some time back stage with him before I was presented with the award in front of thousands of eyes. What I learned has shaped my passion for public speaking.
In the early nineties I spoke weekly on radio, television and off camera about concealed carry, the racist roots of gun control and personal protection. I was coached by professionals on talking to media and presenting myself well. It helped when testified before the United States Congress, Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, and Maryland for an individual’s right to self-defense.
I have studied great speakers most of my life because it was something I wanted to be great at myself. I watched evangelicals, motivational speakers and watched video where I could find it.
Backstage with Charlton Heston, he was a frail old man with a slight hunch in his back. He was soft spoken like me. We talked about his grandkids as we sipped a white wine listening partly to the presentations that were occurring onstage. They were building him up for his entrance and when they finally called out his name, he set down his glass and walked toward the spotlight. What I saw was amazing.
As he got closer to the lit spot on the floor, his posture straightened. I watched him grow two inches from where we stood together. When he was in front of podium, his voice boomed into the microphone and when he got to the line “from my cold dead hands” the building moved.
One of the things I learned from Mr. Heston was the importance of presence. This is
the ability to project a sense of ease, poise, or self-assurance, especially the quality or manner of a person’s bearing before an audience:
It happened because he believed what he was saying. He projected strength. I heard the NRA grew its membership during his tenure as president. When you speak do it confidently. Public speaking may be some peoples’ greatest fears but don’t let it stop you from doing your best. Whether you are talking to 4 or 4000 doing with the ease of talking to just one. You are actually just talking to one person no matter how many are there at the same time.
The second thing I learned was to try to communicate with your audience. You want to speak so that there is an exchange. You must know your audience and speak to them and not at them. Mr. Heston was an actor and understood better than anyone I have every seen expertly use his voice, his breath, and the pause to say something and then allow the audience to catch it before moving on. We all think we are communicating when we talk but we are not always successful. Communicating is to exchange or share ideas. Mr. Heston verbally illustrated the state of the country, got by in that the members of the NRA were the some of the best representation of the nation and then shared what he believed to be the direction we all should go.
The last thing I think made Mr. Heston a great speaker was that he was an actor. Shakespeare said it best…
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts,
If you want to be a better speaker, you should be comfortable in your own skin. Don’t be arrogant though. You should be able to communicate your ideas effectively and almost effortlessly. Mr. Heston used his skills as an actor to be exactly what his audience needed. That is the real reason people ask us to speak isn’t it? You are there for purpose. You are there to deliver a message. It should move or motivate them in some way. It should inform, entertain or enlighten. Mr. Heston was the greatest speaker I have ever heard because I saw him do that after finding out he was more than just a nice old guy that had marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the sixties. He was more than a grandfather and a Methodist. He was more than a devoted husband in a community where marriages are used as stepping stones and PR tricks.
The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. William Arthur Ward
When you speak next time use a story to illustrate. Set the stage for your audience but don’t bore them with a war story unless it is relevant. Use your worlds to show, don’t tell. Take them on a journey so that they are able to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition.
Make them feel it
Those are some of the things I learned from Mr. Heston. One of the coolest things that for awhile I used to get Christmas cards from him. I don’t know if it was a really his signature on them or not but it meant something to me for years. When he passed away I wept.