It’s funny – I’d never imagined I’d find myself on the stage.
As a young man I belonged to an amateur dramatic society, but only ever as a stage hand – strictly back stage, or at the dark end of operating a spotlight – never ‘in the spotlight’.
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I’d be on a stage all alone for up to 90 minutes at a time in front of several thousand people in Tehran delivering keynote talks and having my words simultaneously translated into Farsi… but that’s exactly what just happened this month – and what an experience it was.
I sold my Harlow based business in 2005 and attempted early retirement. Elements of this were fun, great fun. But I’m too driven to kick back and do nothing constructive with my time. I had no real purpose or direction in my days – then I decided to turn to coaching and share my business experience to help others.
I started working with local business owners to help them overcome their challenges and find ways to increase sales and profits.
In order to talk to more people, more often and have a greater impact, I started talking to local business groups and network events. It gives me such a buzz to see people’s eyes light up when something I share hits the spot for a member of the audience. Things have certainly grown from talking to groups of 15-20 in small meeting rooms. (although I still enjoy these events too)
I’m a fellow of the Professional Speaking Association (The PSA) and the Global Speakers Federation. I speak for a living now – and love every minute.
I get asked to speak at corporate events and conferences all over the country and across Europe too. Last year for the first time I was invited to Saudi Arabia which was an interesting experience. In December I’m speaking in Australia and January in New Zealand.
But nothing could have really prepared me for the 12 days I’ve just spent speaking at conferences in Iran.
I will admit that I had an image in my mind of a war-torn, unfriendly and fairly baron, impoverished landscape and possibly with people to match. I was so wrong.
Why would I go if that was the impression I had in my mind? Good question, and one I asked myself time and time again.
Through the PSA, I had heard from a number of other speakers whom I know and trust that they had spoken at conferences for this one particular organizer in Iran and had a fascinating time. So when I received an invitation to speak earlier this year – instinctively I said yes.
I was going to travel from Heathrow via Istanbul with two other speakers from the UK, so felt comfortable enough – safety in numbers and all that.
We would be joined by three more speakers for the main two day conference – an Australian, a Canadian and an American too.
Then just a week or so before we were due to travel I received an email from the organizer – asking could I change my plans and come ahead of the rest – he had several extra events for me to speak at…
I was honored to be asked, took a deep breath, changed flight arrangements and took off all alone for Tehran.
When I arrived in Tehran at 3.30am, I was met in the most beautiful arrival lounge by the organiser in person – we’d only ever spoken via email and twice by phone, but we felt like long lost brothers.
I was driven to my hotel and given the day to settle in. For the next 12 days – this was to be home. Fortunately it was a fantastic apartment hotel – two bedrooms, two bathrooms, lounge, kitchen, dining room and office – all just for me… luxury.
I went for breakfast in the hotels 6th floor roof top terraced restaurant. Stunning 360 degree views of the city and mountains to the north.
Would you have known there are 5 commercial ski areas in Tehran…? Seriously, I had absolutely no idea until finding a picture posted by an Iranian on Facebook a few months before my trip.
That’s right… the majority of Persian people I met all use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn etc. Despite the fact that their privacy regulations in Iran try to outlaw it’s use.
With greater than 60% of it’s population being under the age of 35 – social media is becoming a widely accepted norm for people to communicate. The people in Iran want to embrace change. They want to learn from other cultures and they are.
Having spoken to my host and to the friendliest of reception staff, I was assured the streets were safe for me to explore without any problems at all. Don’t photograph any official looking government buildings or military establishments… that was all I was advised.
I took off for a walk into the center of the city – alone, but not remotely concerned for my safety.
Within 10 minutes a fellow pedestrian asked me for the time – in Persian, so clearly I had no clue what I was being asked and offered a pathetic English apology for not speaking yet another language – why are we Brits so bad with learning others languages?
He was delighted to discover I was English. The gentleman’s name was Behzard. He’d spent 10 years living and working in Canada and was excited to be able to have someone with whom he could practice his English again. We walked and talked for almost an hour.
His English was incredible. In that hour I learned so much. I knew I was traveling at an interesting time for the Persian people. They had just gone through an election process and a new ‘moderate’ president had been announced – but not yet taken office.
Their national football team managed to beat South Korea and take a place at the World Cup Finals in Brazil. Even their Volley ball team having been racking up some very impressive victories on the world stage.
There have been street parties and celebrations which in previous years would have been outlawed – times are changing in Iran – all for good it appears.
The new presidents acceptance speech was highlighted by his statement; “It’s time to shake hands with the world”… That sentiment is echoed by all the people I met, no exception.
On day two I explored the city further, but his time I felt threatened, very scared in fact!
Not from people, but from cars, motorbikes and to be fair… their drivers! They’re quite mad – there appear to be very few rules and nobody to enforce them even if they tried.
I witnessed two lane carriageways turned into three or four lanes in each direction – a real squeeze! Where there were gaps, motor cycles, sometimes with up to four people on board would slither between the cars at speed.
To my complete astonishment I even saw numerous motor bikes weaving into oncoming traffic – that’s right, riding into oncoming traffic! If the roads were too busy – the motor bikes took to the pavements… crazy. Needless to say – I didn’t attempt to drive on this trip.
I wandered into Tehran’s central National park – a real beauty spot. Men, women and children of all ages, shapes and sizes out for their morning exercise. Making use of outdoor gym equipment all provided free of charge. I joined in, jogging and working out in their gym.
The only visible difference with the park in Tehran verses London or the beach front in Marbella… the women were wearing head scarfs. We’re all the same.
During my stay I spoke at several conferences, conducted some business coaching with CEO’s of two large global companies and even spoke to 350 staff of Iran’s largest and oldest, Government owned banks.
I was introduced to the Mayor and dignitaries of each city I visited, met the world wrestling Champion and a number of their Olympic athletes too. But wherever we went to speak – we were the celebrities. It was extraordinary. Everyone jostling, albeit politely, for photographs and even autographs.
Outside each venue – bill boards and posters – never had that experience before… It did make me wonder if they’d got the right Steve Clarke…?
The UK foreign office website advice at this time is still not to travel, but states if you must – then keep a low profile.
I guess we failed on that one.
Before I took to the stage to deliver my first keynote talk I made the effort to learn a few phrases and sentences in Farci. They were incredibly appreciative and responsive to that.
I found that we shared a sense of humour. I discovered that there are universal family values and pride in our own heritage. I discovered there are also certain things that don’t translate – I’d made it my job to understand some of the cultural differences obviously, it would be foolish and rude not to.
However, nobody told me that giving the audience the “thumbs up” after I asked them a question would be considered worse that waving two fingers at an audience in the UK… (and I don’t mean the v for victory sign).
Fortunately my interpreter was quick to spot my mistake and made a joke if it immediately which had the group, originally stunned into silence by my actions, falling about in fits of laughter moments later…
I accept that my view of the county and it’s people is not based on any political agenda or political intelligence. Quite the opposite.
My view was from meeting people, shaking their hands and engaging in conversation, not based on what I see or hear on the news.
I found a highly intelligent, well educated, open, friendly people ready to embrace change.
The past is for reference – not for residence. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all shake hands and move on.