What do 18 students, three supervisors and two organizers from eleven countries and four continents do when they get to know water use in Iran on site within nine days? The answer is clear: they present their own knowledge to each other and draw on the practical experience of local experts. They discuss scientific facts and their practical implementation with the experts. They exchange open questions on historical and current water management, desertification and energy use in Iran. For the practical demonstration on site, they charter a friendly local bus driver who will reliably steer them 1 200 kilometers through villages and metropolises, the dry steppe and to salt lakes. A challenge that everyone is happy to accept.

In short: An exciting, entertaining and informative journey from Tehran via Qom and Kashan to Yazd, which I have taken part in myself in March 2018. The excursion broadens our view of this rich Persian culture, sweeps away many prejudices about the people in Iran conveyed by the media and, last but not least, promotes intercultural and personal exchange.


PowerPoint in Tehran

Ten hours after our nightly arrival in Tehran we sit in the seminar room of Shahid Beheshti University. We listen to three speakers introducing us to the current water situation in Iran. In two classic PowerPoint presentations, they stick partly to text-heavy slides with classic bullet points, partly we see impressive photos and listen to the subtle facts about current developments. In the discussion, both speakers respond to our questions. Here the slides usually move into the background in favor of direct interaction with each other.

Kamran Emami, owner and consultant of Kurit Kara Engineers, is particularly positive: “Hallo, willkommen, and that’s the only word I know.” He asks all participants for a short personal introduction: here commonalities and personal interests of all become visible, which he can go into again and again in the course of his very stimulating lecture. Instead of the dreaded frontal teaching, he stands in the middle, being “one of us”, and works as an authentic expert with his committed lecture style and suitable clothing. With a mixture of lecture and workshop on “lateral thinking” by Edward de Bono, Emami provides creative approaches on how we can use unconventional thinking to find new ways of solving the water crisis. Two more key messages: In the 21st century, expert knowledge alone is no longer sufficient; instead, ethics and creativity are gaining in importance and are now of equal value. Second, fantasy is more important than knowledge, according to Albert Einstein.

Emami briefly summarizes each section of his seminar and helps to keep “the big picture” in mind. A healthy mix of lecture and discussion, short film clips and micro-workshops with brief exercises. One of the highest quality presentations I have seen so far: Thank you, merci, تشکر Kamran Emami!

But I am distracting: While these presentations still took place in the classic auditorium or seminar room environment, we are now leaving Tehran. During the usually long bus tours with more or less long breaks, our students can present topics they have worked out in advance.


Bus trip with smartphone presentations

In classic trainings I usually provide the participants with feedback on aspects such as structure and content of the presentation, language style and storytelling, contact with the audience and of course the stage performance. In addition, there are often questions about the content and design of PowerPoint slides or the usage of flipcharts and props. During a bus ride, however, completely different aspects are in the spotlight that become more important for a successful presentation.

The classic stage is not available on the bus. What remains is the narrow central aisle, which severely restricts elements such as active body language and presentations with props. In addition, there is the movement during the ride. Understandably, some students prefer to present while sitting. For some we only hear the voice, while others stand up and speak to the back rows of the bus while sitting. Others are more or less stable in the center aisle, with the microphone in one hand and the other hand holding the seat. Criteria such as body language and stage performance can only be evaluated here to a very limited extent.

Voice and language style, on the other hand, become more important. Most participants hold the microphone at the correct distance, while a few speak so close to the microphone that the voice is distorted, loud and usually incomprehensible. Others hold it too far away and are barely audible in places. Without feedback, on the other hand, it is not easy to find the right distance yourself – all the better that our very attentive group helps each other.

The presentation does not get any easier if the microphone is held in one hand and the smartphone in the other to retrieve personal notes. Some students share their documents with the whole group via Bluetooth so that we do not only listen to the speaker but also can see the slides. The maps shown here help to orientate ourselves, while large-format photos provide new visual impressions and help us understand content more easily.


From facts and figures to lively stories

Every speech requires proper preparation. The more time we invest in advance, the better we can develop content, combine theory and practice and bring our own experience to the appropriate places. In practice, too many audiences die the infamous “death by PowerPoint” because presentations are often thrown together carelessly or the perspective of the audience is ignored.

In general, “thanks” to ever tighter study plans, today’s students usually have little time to engage more intensively with individual topics outside of bachelor and master theses. Some of the students take part in our well-prepared excursion immediately after an important examination. For some, there is little time to prepare their presentation. For example, in a few presentations we hear only a list of several interesting numbers. Unfortunately, such information is quickly lost: the classic Facts-and-Figures method misses its target and remains ineffective.

Most students are able to connect the dots between water use and other topics. This facilitates our understanding of the content. Their facts and figures tell stories: How do irrigation and seepage rates relate to current or seasonal precipitation? Are there comparative values in other arid regions, and how do we assess them? What long-term developments and trends do we see when considering the dimensions of future dams? And which empirical values do we know from other studies, how were these evaluated by the respective authors?

This is reflected in the following discussions: Facts-and-Figures-presentations are usually followed by comprehension questions, while other presentations also entail more in-depth discussions. Of course, the typical rows of seats in the bus are not ideal for discussion. Not everyone can hear the audience’s questions, so some speakers can approach the asking person, listen to the question and then repeat it via microphone. In this way they involve everyone in the discussion.


Speeches in the landscape

Besides there are some students and some invited experts from Iran, who present their topic during one of the many stopovers directly at the object of interest in the middle of the landscape. We learn more about water use on large pistachio farms, the formation of salt crusts on the soil surface and salt extraction for industry and food. Other presentations are delivered in a combination of nature and museum. They deal with Qanats, underground canals for irrigation, cooling systems and air circulation in modern buildings.

These are the opportunities where participants can refer to their own practical experience. They can stimulate discussion in the group and, at best, gain completely new insights into the topics addressed. In contrast to the protected auditorium, outdoor presentations are the best visual instruction because they address many senses at the same time. The sound is not always clearly audible, depending on wind or wind direction and background noises from traffic and industry.

The campfire is a wonderful conclusion to our journey. Before returning to Tehran we sit together again and review the excursion with so many unforgettable experiences. Hardly any of the participants can escape this unique atmosphere. Here the night becomes shorter and the personal stories longer. Storytelling at its best!

This post is also available in: German

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