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Geneva resident is Europe's top talker

Europe's funniest public speaker and his coach, daughter Kristen

Whether it's cracking one-liners or regaling business meetings, practice makes perfect Europe's funniest public speaker explains to swissinfo.

Geneva resident John Zimmer recently took first prize in the finals of the European Humorous Speech Contest organised by Toastmasters International in Bamberg, Germany.

The contest brought together competitors from 18 different European countries.

Zimmer, a Canadian lawyer who has worked for the past ten years at the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, fought off stiff competition with a pastiche of Arnold Schwarzenegger as "The Terminator".

swissinfo: How did you get interested in entering the public-speaking contest?

John Zimmer: I've only been with Toastmasters since July 2007. I'd known about them for a long time and I'd always thought it would be something worthwhile.

Even though I've had several years' public-speaking experience, you can always improve on it and learn new tricks, polishing up those areas of speech that are rough around the edges.

I'm not necessarily the funniest person in the world but I've got a decent sense of humour so I thought I'd give the contest a shot and it worked out.

It was a lot of work. I decided to enter the competition in the summer and if I hoped to win the European title I knew I would have to go through four rounds. The competition starts at club level, then moves to area level (French-speaking Switzerland), then to division (Switzerland) and finally to district level (continental Europe).

One of the keys about humorous speaking is to pick a topic that the audience can identify with. I thought if you are talking to toastmasters then what better topic than toastmasters, so I effectively spoofed the whole thing.

swissinfo: What makes the difference between an ordinary public speaker and a really great one?

J.Z.: That's a tough question as there is no one style that makes a great public speaker. If you think of great speakers from the past like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or even Barack Obama, their styles are very different. You can have someone who is very flamboyant and outgoing or someone who is very calm and understated and both can be equally effective.

The one common trait to all great public speakers is preparation. The amount of time you put into preparing a speech will pay huge dividends down the road, as people will come up to you afterwards and say 'That was so natural; you did that without notes'. But if it looks natural, it's because it's been rehearsed over and over again and you've really honed your language as well.

swissinfo: So the best comics are not necessarily naturals but the best rehearsed?

J.Z.: Absolutely. When you think of great comics like Jerry Seinfeld, his routine - a series of jokes and small anecdotes - is very different from mine. For the Humorous Speech Contest the rules are clear that you can't just give one-liners. It has to be a coherent speech with a beginning, development and an ending, so it's trickier in that sense.

But in both cases it's the practice. What looks natural on stage is the result of many long hours of work.

I must have said that speech either practising at the club, at home or in my head biking to work about 150 times. When you get up there it's almost like it's programmed into you. The clock starts and you're on autopilot. You might vary a word or two but you don't deviate from it.

swissinfo: Who are your favourite comedians?

J.Z.: I very much like Jerry Seinfeld for his mannerisms and easy off-the-cuff style and his way of taking everyday things and putting a humorous spin on them. I also love Monty Python, who are really brilliant. Jim Carrey can be funny in a slapstick kind of way, and there's Mike Myers, another good Canadian comedian.

Canadians like to talk a lot. We are often considered very polite and reserved compared to Americans, for example. But Canada has produced a number of good comedians.

swissinfo: And what about Swiss comedy?

J.Z.: (long pause). Nice country, beautiful country (laughs). It's an interesting question. There is a sense of humour here in Switzerland, but I'd be hard pressed to put my finger on it. It's probably like a fine Swiss wine or cheese. You have to have been here and have let it age on you for a long time to really appreciate it.

(Pause) I've heard a few Swiss jokes but none spring to mind.

swissinfo: Can you offer any tips for young, budding public speakers?

J.Z.: First of all, I'd say join Toastmasters to get some experience in a friendly environment. It's almost like a laboratory.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they speak too fast. When they get up on stage they feel they have to be go-go-go or they look stupid or scared, so they talk much too fast. Audiences need time to process information. So it's important to breathe deeply and to pause to give emphasis to certain points.

Eye contact is important as well. And if you have to give a speech with notes try to keep them to a minimum – bullet points with ideas.

Body language is also important. You can use hand gestures to really emphasise a point and take a few steps left and right to address different parts of the audience. Think of gestures like a chef using a fine spice; you want it to enhance the meal, not overpower it.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Bradley

In brief

John Zimmer is a member of the International Geneva Toastmasters club, which is one of more than 11,700 Toastmasters' clubs worldwide affiliated with Toastmasters International.

There are 14 clubs in Switzerland (9 English-speaking, 3 German-speaking and 2 French-speaking).

Toastmasters International has nearly 235,000 members in 92 countries. Over 2 million people have been members.

A toastmaster meeting usually involves some 15-30 people who meet for two hours twice a month. Participants practise and learn skills by assuming a role, such as the person who gives a prepared or impromptu speech, the timer, evaluator, grammarian or toastmaster.

International Geneva Toastmasters Club meetings are held at the International School of Geneva (Nations Campus) every first and third Wednesday of the month.

Contestants for the European Humorous Speech Contest had to give a funny speech lasting between five and seven minutes long. They were then judged on a range of criteria, including content, body language, vocal variety, coherence of the speech and audience response.

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