August 18, 2011 fm

An Interview With One Of The Best

Watch John’s award winning speech “Pay Attention!”

Three paragraphs about John Zimmer, one of the best public speakers in Europe:

John is a Canadian now living in Geneva, Switzerland. With degrees in International Relations and Law, he has over 20 years of public speaking experience before courts, tribunals, business conferences, bodies of the United Nations and more.

John lectures on public speaking and presentation skills at the University of Lausanne, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and elsewhere. He is a five-time European champion of Toastmasters International public speaking contests.

John is the best public speaker I have seen live. It is not the five European championships in diverse categories that make him so special. It is not his professional background as a lawyer in private practice and the United Nations system. It is his passion for good rhetoric. He brings rhetoric to life. He lives it. He writes regularly about it on his blog Manner of Speaking.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s hear a round of applause for… John Zimmer!


John, how did you feel about the first speech you gave in your life?

I was very excited about it. I gave my first speech at the age of 5 when I was in Kindergarten in Canada. “Show and Tell” was a big part of elementary school. Every day, someone would speak to the class about any topic they wanted.

I was a huge dinosaur fanatic at the time – I still like them – and had dinosaur books and models and toys all over my room. So when I was told that I would be doing “Show and Tell” in one week’s time, I immediately knew that I had to talk about dinosaurs. I had to share how cool they were with the class!

I’m not sure how persuasive I was, but as I think back on it now, it reinforces in my mind something that I have taught others: Be passionate when you speak. If you can’t get excited about the subject, chances are the audience won’t be excited either.

You started early… Today you are a fully-fledged public speaker. What does public speaking mean to you?

Being able to speak in front of others, whether to teach or persuade or entertain, is enormously rewarding. And it is a tremendous privilege.

Think about it. When you speak for an hour in front of 50 people, you are being given 50 hours worth of people’s time. That’s more than an entire workweek for a single person. That’s an incredibly valuable commodity and speakers need to treat it as such. That’s why preparation and thinking about your audience’s needs are so important.

Public speaking is creativity. You are super creative. Terminatorthe wife’s evaluatorManner of Speaking – where do you get all your ideas from?

Thanks for the compliment! I get my ideas from all over the place: work; my children; travel; the media; everyday life experiences. I make a point of carrying a small notebook and pencil with me. That way, when an idea strikes, I can write it down and come back to it later.

Creativity is a funny thing. Sometimes the ideas come quickly and the speech pretty well writes itself. Other times it is a tough slog. When I find the going tough, I try to change things a bit. I’ll go for a walk or listen to music or maybe watch an inspiring movie. Anything to get the creative juices flowing.

Some people think that they’re not creative; that creativity is only reserved for artists and musicians and actors. But it’s not true. We are all creative. There’s a great quote by Pablo Picasso: “All children are born artists; the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

A fantastic quote! How do you apply this creativity, how do you apply your public speaking skills in your professional life?

Well, as a lawyer, you have to know how to speak well, whether to clients or the court. I was fortunate to get some excellent grounding in the art of advocacy when I was just starting out.

But I now also do a lot of teaching and training on presentation and public speaking skills, which I love. It’s great to work with people who want to improve their communication skills and it’s even better when they start seeing results! I often receive emails from former students after they have given a successful presentation. They are always so pumped up about it. For me, it is incredibly rewarding to know that I was able to make a small contribution to their professional and personal development.

I couldn’t agree more. You have won five European public speaking competitions in Toastmasters. What keeps you motivated to strive for more?

Hey, the hours of practice, the constant refining, the quickened heart rate as the competition approaches, the butterflies … why wouldn’t I be motivated? [laughs]

Seriously, I do love the thrill of competition and pushing myself to be better. But I also enjoy coaching others and trying to help them achieve their best. And it is also nice to take the contest season off now and then and just relax and enjoy the show from the audience.

For anyone interested in competing, I will share an important lesson about speech contests that I learned some time ago. A competitor’s focus should be completely on delivering the speech – and its message – to the audience. It is the only thing that is 100% within your control. You cannot control the venue; you cannot control the other contestants; and you cannot control the judging. Just try to focus on your speech and let the rest take care of itself.

Thanks for this great reflection. A final question. Communication is everywhere. How do you use your speaking skills in the education of your daughters? Or maybe you shouldn’t reveal it here? 

Florian, my daughters are teenagers now. My communication skills are powerless against them!

[laughs] Thank you, John, for this great interview. Please keep inspiring the world!


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