Ayd Instone: My adventure in Iran

Ayd Instone *-  Last week I was walking through the streets of Tehran. There was a turquoise domed temple behind me and a large snow peaked mountain range in front. Other than that it could have been any (slightly run-down) area of London. But it wasn’t. It was Tehran, in Iran. A place that the UK has no diplomatic relations with. On the British Consular website it says in large unfriendly letters ‘Do not go’.

So what was I doing there of all places?

The 20 foot high banner advertising the conference in Tehran

Quite a few of my speaker friends had been over to speak at large conferences in Iran since 2009. I’d never asked or sought to get involved but in spring this year I was recommended and then asked direct so I thought I’d better consider it.

The conferences are organised by Sepehr Taverdian, who runs one of the very few businesses in Iran able organise big international conferences. He’s also a translator and former translator to the government, enabling him a freedom that’s quite unique, able to bring over international speakers. Last month he had Brian Tracy, one of the most famous business speakers ever. At this event, Sepehr was awarded an honourary doctorate by an American university for his business achievements.

But since 2009 a few things have changed. The international concern over Iran’s nuclear programme, the international community’s, especially Israel’s, decisive opinion on that and of course all Europe and the US placing trade sanctions. There were lots of questions: would it be safe? Would my material work (especially with simultaneous Persian translation)? Should I be going at all?

Should I be going? I’m not in violation of any trade sanctions and travel there has not been banned. It was a valuable experience for me, and hopefully for the delegates we all presented to as well. They were certainly very grateful that we were there. In some small way perhaps we were some sort of unofficial peace ambassadors, a cultural exchange. I had obviously no political agenda. We were told of course not to refer to politics, religion or sex in our talks. But that’s not unusual. Those topics are rarely relevant in a business context.

The centre of Tehran

Whether we think we speakers are great business experts with valuable content and experience or not, we are definitely motivational speakers (although nearly everyone in the industry has turned their back on that term). By that I mean our primary job is to inspire and motivate some form or change or action within the delegates in the audience. Otherwise it’s just an entertaining sixty minute performance. This is where it becomes interesting. In the audience, it was hinted, were representatives from what we might perceive as ‘secret police’ (they were more likely cultural ministers). My guess is they were there to make sure we didn’t incite revolution or distort or inflame Islam or Iran. I was very careful not to do this. Mainly because you respect the culture you are guest in, plus I don’t want to upset anyone anyway, anywhere.

But as you know if you’ve been following my stuff for a while, I talk about creativity. I talk about innovation. I talk about breaking out of barriers and restrictions that hold back our freedom of thought. Could I deliver my material properly without inciting the wrath of the establishment or upsetting a different culture and its beliefs?

The answer to this question lay not with them, but with me. How creative do I think I am? Surely I’m creative enough to be able to rise to this challenge, honourably and appropriately?

I made the decision to do it based on the fact that my good friend, Geoff Ramm, marketing speaker, and now president of the UK Professional Speaking Association had been three times already plus Alan Stevens, an international speaker and media coach of great repute would be travelling with me. They would be my barometers.

View from the Tooba hotel, Tehran

But I did have a wobble. When I did the opening keynote at the Professional Speaking Association convention in London last month, Sepehr came over and saw it. What I did there was plainly not what I would do for business people in Tehran but between you and me I don’t think Sepher was that impressed and I thought the whole thing might be off.

But what he said was that I couldn’t perform with the guitar. My first thoughts were of panic: Not take the guitar?! But that’s ME! That’s my act, my brand…

I had to take myself on one side. It’s not about me. It’s about the audience and what they want and what they need. Can I deliver a compelling talk without the guitar? Of course! The professional in me won through and we were on.

We couldn’t talk about religion or politics. That didn’t stop me thinking about them. We had a tangible fear that, just perhaps, if the US election went one way, it could be a green light for a dramatic change in attitudes in certain countries. When we got there we had no news and most websites and all social media were blocked. We learnt via emails that Obama had got back in. Not that any of our Iranian friends were that concerned with the result either way.

On arriving my fears were dispersed by my compatriot Geoff who not only had been three times before but, being the same age as me, we both started applying relevant quotes from Star Wars to the situation. As soon as I re-framed that it was rather like going to Tatooine, it all became a lot more light hearted. Although last time Geoff visited at this time of year they’d had three feet of snow. So we could just as easily be heading for Hoth.

The two day conference had 750+ delegates. I was closing the first day and opening the second day. My first talk was on branding, my second on creativity. There were moments when it felt perfectly normal, just like any other conference, but he reminders that this was a different place were there. Above the stage (and in every public room everywhere) was the portrait of that famous face of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic revolution in 1979, who died in 1989. A separate portrait of the new Ayatollah hung on the left of the stage. (In some rooms the portraits were combined into a single painting.)

The ladies who helped run the event wore, as is the custom, full length smocks and headscarfs that revealed just the face, like a hood with a gold trim, making them appear to us kids of the seventies like helpful Jawas.

The covered market in Tehran

We were instructed never to touch any women in any way, not even to shake hands. An easy rule to uphold, but it became tricky when, after our talks we were literally mobbed. Everyone, and I really do mean EVERYONE wanted their photo taken with us, both together as a group and individually. I’ve never been more photographed, more than at my own wedding. We must have had over 1000 photos taken. It’s a humbling thought to think that, most likely, I’ll never be this wanted and celebrated again.

It was like being at a Beatles press conference in the US in 1964. Coincidentally I was wearing a facsimile of the Beatles suit that they wore on their record breaking Ed Sullivan show. Not that anyone there would notice (except rock impresario Alan Stevens). But it made me feel good.

The people we met were lovely, normal, friendly, and very pleased we were there. I’ve been to a few unusual places and it’s always the same isn’t it? I bet you’ve found it too. People are people wherever you go.

In many ways, Iran is a place of paradox. It’s likely that the sanctions will start to bite and the situation could really change quite quickly in unpredictable ways. And as ever, it’ll affect the ordinary people first. Some of the businesses we spoke to were finding things were changing for them already.

My thanks go out to Sepher and his amazing team, and to all the friendly people I met.

I say in my talks that ‘we are all professional problem solvers’ and we are. We are also professional peacemakers. Creativity, marketing, business, collaboration and trade – these are the tools of peace, and have been for millennia. They enabled the first civilisations to rise where people built proud cities to live in instead of huddling in fearful caves. I found out that Persia has a proud past. And we all have a shared history, closer than you imagine. I sincerely hope we have a shared future, one where our descendants can look back and say ‘there was the turning point that led to a better way’.

In my next articles I’d like to go through with you what I specifically covered in my talks and how it went down. Plus I’ve got some great video and photos to add later too.

Oh, and by the way, we were perfectly safe, and looked after so wonderfully the whole time (except perhaps the Wacky Races taxi ride from hell – which I have video footage of too so stay tuned…)

* Ayd Instone is a creative director, expert speaker and performer. He visited Iran on Novermber 2012. Read more on his website and weblog

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