Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Hailey Women Make the Saudi Arabian Connection
Kat Vanden Heuvel was able to get her class to let loose their formal dress—and their inhibitions—during a workshop in Dubai.
Sunday, December 15, 2019


Susan Fierman began to feel butterflies fluttering in her stomach as her plane neared Riyadh--Saudi Arabia's capital.

She had heard stories of women being beaten for not wearing an abaya dress and head scarf there. And the fact that she was Jewish only added to her concern.

But Fierman was on a mission--to deliver an Advanced Communication Skills Workshop on behalf of Alan Carroll, author of "The Broadband Connection: The Art of Delivering a Winning IT Presentations." Carroll has delivered workshops in 55 countries before such clients as Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Cisco Systems, BP Chemical and Digital Equipment Corporation.

Susan Fierman, left, recounted how she kicked her sandals off to run into the ocean while working in the hot, humid United Arab Emirates only to find out the ocean was a scalding 99 degrees. “I ran back to shore—quickly!”

And, since signing on several years ago Fierman, and even more recently Hailey’s Kat Vanden Heuvel have delivered two- to five-day workshops in such exotic places as Beirut, Cairo, Dubai, Tunisia, Oman,  The Netherlands and Spain.

On that first trip, when she landed in Riyadh five years ago, Fierman enlisted the help of another  passenger to show her how to wrap her head scarf.

"I got off and they told me, 'You don't need a head scarf. You're not a Muslim,’ ” she recounted. “Here I was, scared, because I was an American woman by myself in Saudi Arabia and I was being told that the Saudi Arabians were terrified of Americans. Right then, all my fears disappeared and my confidence soared.”

Fierman quickly realized she was one of the only women and the only American and only white person in line with 750 men going through customs. Her anxiety spiked a little as a guard motioned her to a different part of the room.

Kat Vanden Heuvel was easy to pick out of a class in Riyadh.

“He just looked at his phone, smoking. He didn't even look at me. He just stamped my passport and I was in."

The next day Fierman found herself standing in front of 19 young college women. They were the cream of the crop in a country that wanted them to start contributing to the country's economy so the country didn't have to bring in so many information technology and administrative workers from the United States and other countries.

Until then, Fierman said, the women before her would have never thought of going to work. They were so wealthy they spent their time traveling the world in between periods of boredom. But their country’s leaders needed them to step up and produce, given that gas exports were dwindling, that water cost more than gasoline does in the United States and that the country imports all its food.

Then, the concept of teaching women in a class like this was so new that authorities papered the windows so outsiders couldn’t see the women. Security was so tight the women had to have keys for the bathroom and to get in and out of the workshop room.

Kat Vanden Heuvel’s notes talk about the importance of personal stories—“your most valuable content.”

Fierman had the women take off their headscarves so she could tell them apart. Some of the women wore pajamas under their abayas and million-dollar sandals on their feet.

"I asked them whether they disliked not being able to drive, and they asked me, 'Why would we want to drive? We have a driver.' I asked how they washed their abayas and they looked at me like I was insane. They had never seen a wash machine. But they knew their lives would never be the same after this."

It was Fierman's mission to teach them how to eliminate distracting gestures, while learning to use dynamic hand movements to illustrate the messages they were trying to convey. She taught them to do away with monotone speech and fillers like "ah," while teaching them to speak with a passion that would make their presentations memorable. And she taught them the basic concepts of adult learning and the best techniques for audience interaction.

"Even two days can be transformational,” she said. “We taught some Japanese information technology people in one workshop. They were geniuses, who came in wearing thick glasses and their pants up to their chests. One man could barely talk and he couldn't make eye contact, and I thought, 'How is this going to work?' "

All had breakthroughs, even the man who could barely talk.

"I found out that in Japan, if one person plays 100 percent, everyone plays 100 percent,” Fierman said. “By the end of the workshop, he was talking. He was even smiling. We teach workshop participants how to communicate in an impactful way, to listen, to sell, even pitch new technology. So many are afraid in front of an audience that they talk really fast and no one gets what they're trying to convey."

Alan Carroll is selective about his workshop presenters. So, it was extraordinary that Vanden Heuvel joined Fierman on the speaker’s circuit. In just a few short years, she said, things had become more relaxed in Saudi Arabia.

"I feel so comfortable and safe when there,” she said. “The people there will not touch you as they do in other Third World countries. There's a different level of respect. I had my preconceived stereotypes, thinking that, if someone wore a veil, they must be shy and quiet. But that was wrong. That said, I did have men and women balk at a taking part in a mixed class so we had to divide it up into guys and gals.”

Vanden Heuvel recalls asking one woman what her mother and father did, just to get the conversation rolling.

“She said, 'How dare you ask me about them! This interview is about me and my skills!’ ”

The workshops that Fierman and Vanden Heuvel present involve banging on tables, yelling and other uses of expression--so much so that one workshop caught the attention of the police. It’s these types of things that help participants quit hiding behind data and connect to their audience, said Vanden Heuvel.

“Some come, afraid to open their mouths and we get them to screaming,” she said. “We stretch them. We get them to surrender, to let go of their ego—who they think they are or who they think they have to be.”

Vanden Heuvel said many participants think they’re good at public speaking or selling when reality dictates differently. One person, for instance, claimed he never made ineffective gestures. Then he watched the video of himself that told a different story.

“We don’t teach them how to organize a speech. We teach them how to be mindful, comfortable in their skin,” she said.

The job has come with perks. Fierman, for instance, has been given gifts of expensive jasmine tea and gluten-free cookies by the chefs in the hotels in which kings and presidents stay. And Vanden Heuvel has been taken out to dinner on a boat ride down the Nile.

Vanden Heuvel has stayed connected with many of her students through Instagram.

“In these times when we’re so divided, teaching these workshops has restored my faith in young people,” she said. “Through these travels and conversations with students, I’ve learned that we’re all more similar than you would think.”


Alan Carroll, the developer of the course, will be teaching his first ever open enrollment course in February in Virginia. For information, visit https://e.mybookingmanager.com/ProfessionalSpeaker


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