Gene Wilder and the art of projecting your humanity

by Tony Sloman02 Sep 2016
This is a tribute to a man who showed his humanity both on and off the screen.
I once met Gene Wilder and I will never forget how he made me feel.
Hopefully, through my experience of this encounter, I can help others reflect on a particularly valuable skill to bring to bear as a public speaker (as this is my passion).
The encounter
I approached Gene Wilder after a play I performed in at a theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. He had watched the performance and I had plucked up the courage to approach him after the show.
I will never forget the warmth and magic I felt in his voice and in his gaze.

I asked him if he liked the play, which he did, and then I asked him if he liked my performance. Or rather, did he ‘notice’ my performance?
“We all like to be noticed, yeah?” Wilder said “I noticed everything you did.”
He went on to talk about how important every single part in a production is and how noticeable it is when we are not in sync.
We spoke more about the play and then I expected him to move onto the next person. But he didn’t. Instead, he spoke of the loss of his previous wife, Gilda, and there was no mistaking the pain in his voice.
He then introduced his new wife, Karen, and there was no mistaking the love as he did so.
We shared a story about a Mexican restaurant called La Hacienda because I had gone there and seen his photo on display.
As Gene spoke, more and more I could see his spirit and I could see the light and shade. I could see the Willy Wonka glint. He was not performing, he was simply engaging with another human being.
He spoke of the magic that happens from the little things we do in life.
I remember telling my mother this story and her own eyes lighting up. My mother loved Gene Wilder. My mother also has Alzheimer’s, as did Gene.
From that brief moment I connected with Gene Wilder I now know that the magic people talk about through his screen personae was indeed a quality that existed for him in real life.
Like most great comic actors Gene Wilder seems to have lived with a good deal of sadness and yet he appeared OK with it. It did not seem to kill him and in a strange way he gave the impression of embracing it.
You see children do this naturally, which is why Gene Wilder connected with the whole world when he blessed our screens with Willy Wonka.
He created a character that had the beautiful trappings of childhood mixed with the wisdom of age. This was knowledge with naivety. Love with hate. A mystical and ageless character that felt the pain of the world and could help us heal through laughter.
I learned from that brief encounter with Gene that the more we can embrace our humanity - the light and shade, the more we can reach others. 
Public speaking anchors
I have been writing about anchors in public speaking. Anchors being a mechanism to keep us grounded and centred when the seas are rough. As I think about Gene Wilder, I am drawn to a new anchor – inspiration.
Inspiration comes from being connected to a purpose, to your humanity, to your imagination and to your emotions.
I hear so many people say that they find it challenging to connect to other people’s words or that their presentation material lacks ‘flair’.
With my own Willy Wonka glint I could suggest that you write some magic into your material; an anecdote, a story, some striking visuals and use your own emotionally connected language.
If there is no opportunity to add your own touch, and I hope that this is not typically the case, I suggest you find a connection to the purpose that sits behind the words.
When we think of it this way, we are all poets.

The takeaway
Find inspiration whenever you engage a listener. Use this as a way to connect to your material and do not belittle the part you play.
Just as Gene Wilder pointed out that no part we play is insignificant, look at your words as part of a bigger picture.

If you believe the role you play in an organisation or the presentation you have been asked to deliver lacks significance, then it will play out that way.

With inspiration there is always a chance that your words will land in someone’s ears and create a chain of inspiration. If we all have inspiration behind our words think of the possibilities in the bigger picture.
Don’t throw your words away. I was a stranger to Gene Wilder but from that brief encounter I believe he was a person who felt for others and who made me feel special whilst I was in his company.
Words can do that … when tempered with inspiration.
Rest in peace Gene Wilder and may you continue to shine light where there is darkness.
Tony Sloman is an audience engagement specialist and public speaking coach. He is the director of Passion and Purpose who coaches individuals and groups in public speaking skills.