Lesley Everett shares her experience of speaking in Iran
Lesley was invited to speak at an International Advertising Forum in Iran and being only the 4th female Speaker to do so, has written about the whole experience.
It is often those occasions we ‘look forward’ to with trepidation that turn out to be the most stimulating, and I can certainly say this is true of my recent trip to Iran. With Iran being in the news so much at the moment our view of the country can be tainted, however I can only say I am so glad I went!
It was an honour to be only the 4th female speaker to be invited to Iran - so despite having advice ranging from “don’t go” or “why would you want to go there”, to “it’s an amazing country and an opportunity you shouldn’t miss” I decided it was something I had to experience. I love to travel and have spoken in 20 countries across 4 continents, and I’m unaware of ever having been booked because I am female. I consider myself as a professional speaker not a ‘female speaker’. However, I knew that there would be a number of ‘rules’ I would have to take into consideration being a woman speaking in Tehran.
Sepehr Taverdian from Hamayesh Farazan Co. originally asked me to do a tour for several events over 10 days. After doing some degree of research I decided just to speak at the main event at the end of the tour - the 3rd International Advertising Forum, rather than risk being challenged over a 10-day period! It was a good way to test the water gently!! Not my usual style, but it seemed the best way.
I have to say here, that Sepehr is one of the most professional and ethical event organisers I have ever worked with! He is also Iran’s top translator, translating all our presentations from 8am to 7.30pm – it was an absolute pleasure to work with him and his wonderful team.
My main concerns on speaking in Iran were around whether I would be accepted, and whether my content and message would be deemed credible. Speaking on Personal Branding I know my image is an important part of my presentation - how would I cope, and express my personality being covered from head to foot? Equally importantly, would I accidentally follow my own Personal
Brand rules and offer a hand shake to a man - or do something else disrespectful unwittingly?
My husband Chris travelled with me - apparently for support, and nothing to do with the fact that he too loves travel. He was incredibly (and sometimes irritatingly!) concerned that I had my hijab securely fixed to my head – his sense of adventure was limited by the ramifications he might suffer should his charge breach cultural protocol.
As we landed, our first views of Tehran were of thick snow on the ground. Not what I had expected at all! I didn’t think to check about snow…. We sailed quickly through immigration without any conversation with immigration officials, again not expected, and my hijab reasonably firmly in
place.! I was told to make sure my hijab was with me in my carry-on luggage so I could put it on before getting off the plane.
Sepehr had kindly sent his father to meet us at the airport. We all jumped in a taxi, and what followed was a 30- minute hair raising drive on icy, slushy roads with snow coming down thick and fast, in a car with no seat belts and a driver on his mobile phone! Different laws exist on the roads in Iran! We were relieved to arrive at our hotel at 3.30am, in one piece.
Next day we awoke to a beautiful scene from the hotel window of snow on the mountains, quite stunning. We met up with Sepehr and the other 6 speakers. Some were great friends already – Mike Ogilvie, Geoff Ramm, George Torok, Martin Goodman, Shaun Smith and Barnaby Wynter. Most had been on tour for the previous 8 days and had the benefit of having familiarised themselves with the Iranian culture. Having been told by Sepher’s father the previous night that my outdoor jacket was not long enough nor suitable to wear in public places, I had begun to wonder about the suit I had planned to present in. Whilst I had checked as part of my planning before I left the UK that the length of jacket of my trouser suit would be acceptable I soon discovered that it wasn’t. It didn’t cover my backside completely. Apparently I needed a ‘manteau’ which is longer and looser. Fortunately, Mike Ogilvie offered to take me shopping - he had been to Iran before and understood what was needed. (A shopping trip with Mike is an experience!)
The shopping malls were a revelation - full of women’s clothes shops and fashion labels, many more than men’s stores. Under their manteau the women go to town with their outfits – the designer labels and beautiful clothes come out at weddings and parties or at home with their husbands.Suprisingly, when dressing for pleasure, no particular fashion is followed. Peer pressure in Iran directs a woman towards wearing what she wants as opposed to what the current fashion may be elsewhere in the world. What a wonderful and free way to be.
I found a smart black thigh length coat that I was assured by Mike was the norm for Iranian women. This along with my trousers and hijab became my new speaking outfit - rather more restrictive than my usual presenting attire. While I felt like a local (blond hair excepting!), I felt a
little ‘trussed up’ and had a continual concern of the hijab slipping. The brooch I had intended to secure it with was added to by hair grips which did the job better but were rather lacking in the style stakes!! Comments from the rest of the gang (who you can see above) about only needing a mop and bucket, were not appreciated!
Finally the presentation arrived. I learnt that an Iranian audience likes the presenter to be lively and dynamic, and to come down to and integrate with them. Of course I had gone through my presentation with a fine tooth comb to ensure no mention or images of forbidden subjects; politics, sex, drugs scantily clad women, alcohol or suggestive adverts are all a no-no.!
We soon realised the audience love to mingle with the speakers after the presentations and have photographs taken. I had to smile until it hurt.
However, I also had to keep reminding myself not to shake hands with any of the men or to stand too close. It is not acceptable to stand too close to a man in a photograph - again things we would not think about in the western world.
A chilled glass of wine would have been most welcome at the end of a long, hot day in the conference centre, but of course no alcohol is
I’d like to share with you some valuable lessons I learned from Iran - just in case you ever get invited, and by the way, if you do - just go.
Lesson 1 - Never judge a country until you have experienced it yourself. This is what global speaking is all about. Iran turned out to be friendly, hospitable, non-threatening, safe and a really pleasant place to be. Far from the perception portrayed by the media.
Lesson 2 - Really do your homework on what clothing is and isn’t acceptable - however, one bonus of my mistake was visiting their great shops!
Lesson 3 - Make sure you have practiced wearing a hijab and have suitable grips to secure it. Practice moving around a lot especially if you will be on stage speaking. Perhaps avoid a silky fabric as from my experience it doesn’t stay on well!
Lesson 4 - Be individual with the bits that you can be. Hijabs come in all colours and styles, and are a way to add personality to your outfit when all your other accessories are covered. There is a wide variety of colours and patterns worn so have some fun with this. Pay attention to your eye makeup - I was able to apply heavier makeup to my eyes than I would normally and this really worked.
Lesson 5 - Check out what is acceptable with meetings and greetings and keep reminding yourself. I found my Personal Brand being constricted by not being able to offer a handshake when I preach in my programmes how important it is to offer a firm handshake, direct eye contact and a smile! Putting your hand on your heart and bowing slightly seems to be the most acceptable greeting.
Lesson 6 - Be prepared to present in a different style to your norm. Get as much advice beforehand on the type of audience, the stage set-up and how you might integrate.
Lesson 7 - Go through your content in fine detail - it’s easy to miss things that will be offensive, because they are humorous or common place to some cultures.
Lesson 8 – Be prepared for your books and products to be copied! Copyright in Iran appears to mean ‘the right to copy’! You can see in this photo the stark contrast between what is acceptable dress for men versus women. However men are not permitted to wear short sleeves or shorts.
By the time I left it was apparent to me that the Iranian people are very friendly and eager to help and advise on their culture in any way possible. Given the opportunity, use this help – the advice will be correct, and accepting it will be a direct compliment to the giver!!
Enjoy your trip when you get to go, and let me know your experiences.