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Blugold alumnus teaches the power of positive communication

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Dr. Alan Zimmerman credits his former academic advisor, Dr. Sally Webb, a professor emerita of communication and journalism, for her encouragement while he was a UW-Eau Claire student.

Dr. Alan Zimmerman realized he had a talent for speaking while competing in high school forensics and debate, but the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire alumnus didn’t know those early competitions foreshadowed a hall of fame professional speaking career.

Decades later, and after a 15-year career as a college faculty member, Zimmerman is a bestselling author and keynote speaker who has taught positive communication skills to more than a million people in 49 states and 22 countries.

“It happened kind of accidently,” says Zimmerman, who splits his time living between Colorado and Florida. “I never planned to be a teacher and I never planned to be a professional speaker. I’m still teaching and it’s just a different audience. I’m still very much a teacher.”

As a 17-year-old Eau Claire North High School graduate, Zimmerman hoped to attend an out-of-state private college before going into the ministry, “but economics didn’t make that possible,” he says. He ended up living at home and attending his hometown university.

Alan Zimmerman

“My parents were very generous,” Zimmerman says. “They said I could stay at home and they’d pay my room, board and tuition, but I resented that my first year. I look back now and think, ‘What a blessing.’ I graduated with zero debt, a great degree from a great university and had a wonderful experience.”

Undecided about a career after graduating from the university in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication, Zimmerman became a part-time university teacher “to pay the bills” while obtaining his master’s degree and Ph.D. He taught at Emporia State University in Kansas and became a tenured professor at then-Mankato State University in Minnesota.

After companies started hearing about his courses on topics such as interpersonal communication, self-esteem and conflict resolution, Zimmerman juggled both his teaching and a speaking career for several years.

“I thought it was a great combination,” Zimmerman says. “I could experiment with new lectures and content with my students and perfect that, then take it out into the business world. I’d learn real-life applications that I could bring back and tell my students. I loved that cross-fertilization.”

Zimmerman eventually became an in-demand, full-time professional speaker, even being named to the National Speakers Association’s Council of Peers Award for Excellence Hall of Fame. He continues working today to “transform the people side of business” by mentoring clients ranging from major corporations and the U.S. military to small businesses.

He laments that people today are more connected through social media but less engaged in the important aspects of life.

“People say they are too busy to become more engaged,” Zimmerman says. “I ask people to do things a little differently, maybe take 10 seconds to tell someone they did a great job. Taking the time now will save you time later.”

Reflecting on his time at UW-Eau Claire, Zimmerman recalls the “tremendous caring” of professors, especially his academic advisor, Dr. Sally Webb, a professor emerita of communication and journalism who worked at the university for nearly 50 years, whom he still communicates with several times a year.

“It was just amazing to me that anybody could be that invested in her students,” Zimmerman says. “She always said, even when I was young, ‘I’m so proud of you, Alan.’ It’s amazing how powerful a comment like that can be.”

Webb recalls that even as a first-year student, it was obvious Zimmerman was a gifted, hard-working Blugold.

“It has been a joy over the years to watch Alan develop his skills and positively influence people all over the world through his outstanding professional speaking," Webb says.

Zimmerman recommends that today’s Blugolds get involved in campus organizations and make connections with faculty members.

“If you have a question or a problem or a concern, I found most of the professors to be extremely approachable,” Zimmerman says. “Don’t just be worried or confused. Go talk to them.”

Zimmerman is maintaining his connection to the university through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. He created endowed scholarships in 2004 that have supported more than 25 Blugolds over the years through a communication scholarship and a Christian career scholarship.

“It’s been gratifying to see how you have touched someone’s life in some small way,” Zimmerman says.