Saturday, November 17, 2012

Talking to friends in Tehran

Alan on stage in Tehran
I returned recently from a trip to Iran with fellow speakers Geoff Ramm, Ayd Instone,  Jerome Joseph and Peter Sylvester with whom I spoke at the 4th World Advertising and Branding Forum in Tehran. Advice on Iran from the UK Foreign Office is unequivocal - "Avoid travel to the whole country". However, the trip was organised by a very experienced Iranian conference planner, Dr Sepehr Taverdian, and I know many speakers who have been there on several occasions. It made sense to go and see things for myself.

A parsley shop in the bazaar
The experience was well worth while. The welcome was warm, the hospitality was outstanding, and the people were friendly and keen to hear our stories. Of course, we were circumspect. We didn't discuss religion or politics. We didn't stray far from our hotel without local colleagues, and we made sure that there was nothing to offend in any of the slides we showed or videos we played. That's the normal behaviour of professional speakers anywhere in the world.

Delicious fresh bread on a stall
One of the things that struck me was the sheer normality of Tehran. It's like any major city - its streets are crowded, there are traffic jams, bazaars, roadside stalls selling delicious bread and fruit, and shopping malls with global brands such as Zara and Mango. Though the economic sanctions are clearly starting to bite, people are still getting on with everyday life. There was one element that was stood out (if that's the right term) from many many other cities I've visited, and that was the way people drove. Whether it's fatalism or a desire to be spotted by a Formula 1 team owner, the majority of drivers apparently have only accelerators underfoot. One taxi driver in particular, who for some reason became known by the un-Iranic name of "Crazy Moses", gave us a couple of rides that I still recall with mild terror.

The former Shah's palace
We had time to visit the former Shah's palace - now a military museum, and strolling round the grounds was a tranquil contrast to the bustle and noise of the city centre a mile or so away. It was interesting to make cultural connections between Iran and renaissance Europe - I recall seeing a pair of French duelling pistols presented by Louis XVI to the then Shah - along with a tableau of military uniforms dating back thousands of years. For me, one of the most fascinating insights was the cultural history of Persia, which was arguably the birthplace of civilisation, as my good friend Ayd Instone pointed out in his speeches (by the way, Ayd has written a more detailed account of our trip, which you can find on his excellent blog)

The end of the conference
The large conference centre was modern and well-equipped, and though we spoke through a translator (the excellent Dr Taverdian again), all of the speeches were well-received and appreciated. We were showered with gifts, including hand-made chocolates, trophies and some very substantial portraits (see picture) that will serve as mementos of an extraordinary week.

The speakers, sponsors and organisers
Before I left the UK, the question that I was asked by professional colleagues was "should you really be gong to Iran under the circumstances?" Of course, it's something I had to ponder before making the decision to travel. I had no desire to put myself in harm's way, or to start taking sides in an international dispute. However, my view is that as an international speaker, my job is to be a rapporteur. It's up to me to seek out experiences and stories so that I can provide informed insights to my audiences. I need to be, as far as possible, free of prejudice based on hearsay. I have to go and see for myself, which is exactly what I did.

I'm grateful to my fellow speakers and hosts, particularly Dr Sepehr Taverdian, for giving me the opportunity and making the trip so memorable. As Maya Angelou put it "Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."


Claire Boyles said...

I’ve heard a lot about Iran lately, and have a friend that works as a Business Consultant, Coach and speaker there. He’s involved in similar projects, and wants to motivate and inspire Iranian businesses in ways so that they think outside of the box too.

I have that feeling that you get when you suspect that maybe, just maybe I might end up speaking there too. It was suggested to me recently, and I expressed concerns about the fact that I was a woman, but having read about yours & Ayd's experiences, it made me think that maybe, just maybe it could be done.

I’d LOVE to speak to an audience like this, hungry for innovation, hungry to learn, and as you said simply by being there, you’re a kind of ambassador.

Alan Stevens said...


Good luck with your quest to speak in Iran. See my comment in the PSA Facebook group about it.

Lesley Everett said...

Hi Claire, read my blog on speaking as a woman in Iran. It might be useful, Lesley

Paul du Toit said...

Alan, your apt summing up of your Iran visit pretty much echoes my experience of 2009. They are indeed just normal people wanting normal things for themselves and their families, and hungry for opportunity and knowledge. It brings to mind the haunting Sting lyrics from Dream of the Blue Turtle when he mused" Do the Russians love their children too?"