In Dream Chaser Interviews

John Zimmer

A few weeks ago we talked about how paralyzing the fear of public speaking can be, so much so that it’s been named the #1 fear people face…even over death. Sometimes public speaking is essential to be competent at a specific job and therefore, places like Development Academy now provide training on how to public speak and other presentation skills. Still, public speaking is frightening to many people, especially if it is sprung on them without notice. For some people, public speaking without any notice or time to prepare will be a massive phobia. Luckily, most people know in advance when they have to speak publicly. This gives them time to plan their speech and to calm themselves down if they need to. Those with phobias of public speaking will, understandably, be quite nervous. Therefore, they will probably look at ways they can calm themselves down on the day. Perhaps some stealth pipes for weed could be useful for discretely calming any nerves. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to find the method that works for them. It’s important to be as relaxed as possible before speaking publicly, so anything that relaxes the individual should be used.

Whilst we’ve said that a lot of people would struggle with public speaking, there are some people who do it for a career. That’s why I was so intrigued when I met John Zimmer, an award-winning public speaker whose dream is to captivate audiences with the spoken word.

Q: Tell us about yourself.
JZ: My name is John Zimmer. I am happily married to Julie and have two terrific teenage daughters, Alexandra and Kristen. I was born and raised in Canada and have lived in several places around the Province of Ontario.

I have degrees in International Relations (University of Toronto) and Law (University of Ottawa). I practiced law for several years in Toronto. In 1998, I had the opportunity to come to Geneva, Switzerland to work on an interesting project at the United Nations. Eleven years later, my family and I still love it here. In November 2009, I will be taking up a new position in the legal department at the World Health Organization.

I enjoy reading, travelling and skiing with my family. I am an avid cyclist and enjoy long-distance cycling events in Switzerland and France. I love languages. Besides English, I am fluent in French and conversant in Arabic, Italian and German.

Q: What’s your dream and how are you working towards it?
JZ: My most important dream, which I share with my wife, is to see our daughters grow up to be happy and successful (according to their own definitions of happiness and success); to see them be curious and inquisitive about many things; to see them be open-minded and respectful of others, and philanthropic in their outlook.

For me personally, I have several dreams, but the one about which I will “speak” here is to become a better public speaker and to help others do the same.

Like many people, I have always had a love for, and appreciation of, good public speaking. Think back to a great speech that you heard. Perhaps it was inspiring; perhaps it was heart-rending; perhaps it was hilarious. Regardless of their subject-matter, all great speeches have one thing in common: they captivate their audiences for whom time momentarily stands still.

Unfortunately, all too often, public speaking is just . . . well . . . bad. But it does not have to be that way. With practice and commitment, anyone can improve their public speaking skills. It is not uncommon to see people with no background in public speaking, like ex-sports players for example, become excellent public speakers through hard work. Take a look at if you don’t believe me.

I have been speaking in public – in one way or another – for most of my life. My parents always said I was talkative as a child, which I think is a nice way of saying that I never shut up! Fate led me to law school where I developed an interest in oral advocacy. Twice I represented my law school in mooting competitions, and the second time saw my team win the national championship for Canadian law schools.

As a lawyer, I had the great fortune to work at a law firm that specialized in litigation. I learned much from my senior colleagues, and they helped me to develop my confidence and my style. After many years, I made the transition from private practice to public international law at the United Nations where I gained invaluable experience speaking before international audiences.

When it comes to public speaking, there is always room for improvement. Since 2007, I have been a member of the International Geneva Toastmasters Club where I continue to work hard to hone my communication skills.

I have had the good fortune to win several Toastmasters International public speaking contests, including the District Speech Evaluation and Humorous Speech Contests for Continental Europe in 2008, the highest possible level for both contests. In 2009, I finished second in the District International Speech Contest.

While awards are nice, one of the greatest pleasures that I have had in Toastmasters comes from helping others gain confidence in themselves and seeing them make steady progress in the development of their public speaking skills. Recently, I have been teaching a course on public speaking skills to students and alumni from the Executive MBA Programme at the University of Lausanne. The course has been well received and I have enjoyed it a lot. I plan to do more such teaching in the future.

I also have a blog on public speaking called Manner of Speaking. Please stop by and have a look around the site; with luck you will find something useful or at least amusing.

Q: Describe a gray time in your life. How did you overcome it?
JZ: Like everyone, I have highs and lows as I go through life. They are inevitable. I am fortunate that I have never faced a bout of depression and I hope that I never do. Still, there have been difficult times when various pressures or uncertainties have weighed more heavily than normal.

One thing I do – and I often recommend this to others – is that I follow the news regularly on TV or the Internet. I am very quickly reminded that no matter what difficulties I might be encountering at the moment, they pale in comparison to the hardships faced by the majority of the people on the planet. And yet many of these people are making Herculean efforts to better their lives and the lives of those around them. You can find thousands of examples on YouTube or elsewhere.

This helps me keep things in perspective, which I believe is essential to a happy life. Once I have regained perspective (because we all lose it from time to time), I am better able to plan my next steps and take action.

Q: What challenges and fears have stood between you and your dreams? How did you overcome them?
JZ: I suppose that the fears are essentially the same as those faced by others: I’m not good enough; I’m too old; I’m too young; people might laugh; I might fail; etc. Challenges come in many forms: lack of time; lack of qualifications; prejudices of others; an unlevel playing field; and more.

Many people often face challenges from those closest to them who, in complete good faith and wanting only to protect them, dissuade them from taking certain chances in life. Now, if someone is trying to dissuade you from cliff diving into shark infested waters, you might want to heed their advice. However, the waters (sticking with the metaphor) become murkier when it comes to one’s life ambitions. Sometimes it takes real courage to stand up for ourselves in the face of genuine concern from friends and relatives.

Ultimately, when faced with challenges or fears, the best way to break the gridlock is to take action. That is what the great motivators the past and present have always advocated and they are right. I do believe in the power of positive thinking and the law of attraction, two ideas that have gained much credence in recent years. However, I firmly believe that they are only one side of the coin; we also need to take regular, concrete action to turn our dreams into reality.

Q: What inspires you to keep pushing forward when the going gets tough?
JZ: Knowing that I have the love and support of my family is huge. Also knowing that in 5, 10, 20, 40 years I will be the same age whether I make an attempt or not. So why not try? And if something does not work, then try something else.

I think that George Bernard Shaw put it best: “This is true joy in life. … To be a force of nature, not a feverish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a brilliant torch that I want to make burn as brightly as I can for as long as I can before passing it on to future generations.”

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to someone else who is struggling to move beyond the gray and follow a dream, what would it be?

One piece of advice only? Boy, that’s a tall order! A lot of what I would say has already been said in response to the questions above. However, I am still going to cheat on this one:

  1. Have faith in yourself, whatever the source of that faith may be. If you don’t believe in yourself nobody else will.
  2. Take care of yourself physically. Eat right and exercise to the extent that you can. Being in good shape physically will help you get through the tough times more easily.
  3. Seek inspiration in the wisdom of others. There are so many wonderful books available. Invest in yourself and pick some up. Also, watch inspiring videos on the Internet. One of my favourites is the talk given by Benjamin Zander at a TED Conference.
  4. Break the job down into bite sized chunks and then do something concrete everyday to “eat” those chunks one at a time. Remember the old saying: “Yard by yard the job is hard; inch by inch the job’s a cinch.”
  5. Take action. Here we can learn something from two great scientists of the past: Galileo and Newton. One of the basic laws of motion says that an object at rest will tend to stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force. We need to be that force. Take action and get the ball rolling. As it starts to gather momentum you might be surprised just how far it can go.

For more information about John Zimmer, check out his blog: Manner of Speaking. You can also view some of his award-winning speeches: District International Speech Contest and Humorous Speech Contests.

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