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Making great presentations

The Powerpoint presentation (for better or worse) is an integral part of corporate life. Your organisation may or may not have moved on to other softwares like Prezi, but that’s just a different software. The “deck” remains essential to every decision at work – whether it is short-term or long-term, for training or for evaluation, for the top management or the feet-on-the-street. Depending on your industry and your specific role in the organisation, you may be required to make more or fewer presentations but you simply cannot escape them. So then here are a few pointers on how you can go about making better, more impactful presentations:

Start with the WHY

This is great advice for practically everything we do in life (thank you Simon Sinek) but is especially useful when making presentations. No matter how important the presentation is (maybe you are presenting to the board of directors) or how regular / mundane it is (maybe it is a weekly update covering just a few parameters), it is important to define the “WHY”. Before you open a fresh document and start creating charts and adding text boxes, take off some time to answer these questions:

  • Who is my target audience? Why must they sit through this presentation?
  • Does my audience stand to gain from viewing this deck (like a training)? Or do I stand to gain from it (like an appraisal)?
  • What is the CTA (Call-to-Action)? Do I simply expect my audience to take back the information I am presenting? Or do I want a decision from them? Do I want to inspire action? Do I want them to reflect on what I have just presented and then ask them for their thoughts at a later stage?
  • Has the audience already asked me some questions in an earlier communication? How am I going to answer those questions? Remember, your audience could have asked you a question or could have sought information through both formal and informal routes. Perhaps this was discussed in the last meeting you had and you told them then that you will come back with an answer. So are you going back with an answer? Or maybe they sent out a mail with some very specific questions / concerns / feedback. Are you addressing these points?

The amount of time you spend answering these questions is largely guided by how important the presentation is and how much time you have to prepare your deck. It is a great idea to get your whole team in a room and find answers to these questions. It might seem like a tremendous effort but in the long run you will find it to be an exercise that saves both time and effort and also helps avoid embarrassment during the final presentation.

Gather your DATA

A lot of people start with the data and say “Ok, I’ve got these numbers. Now let me just make a pretty looking chart and put it on a slide.” But you need to start with the WHY and add only that data which is supporting you in answering this WHY. Keep the following points in mind as you gather your data:

  • Is my data source reliable and accurate?
  • Does my data reconcile with similar reports floating in the organisation?
  • Is my data too old? Is it still relevant?
  • Do I have enough data points? Or do I have too many?
  • Am I missing any data points? Do I have any data points that may be proxy?
  • Is my audience already familiar with the data points in question? Or do I need to build on the subject matter from scratch?

Remember, data is mostly numbers, but it could be information in any form. Check if you have information that is critical to your WHY but isn’t being captured as a number.

Most teams already have at least one person whose primary job is to maintain and analyse data (or if not, then teams usually have access to the Business Intelligence Unit / Reporting Unit). Utilise these resources the best you can.

Analyse your DATA

Your team’s analyst regularly analyses any data relevant to your team and would have discerned trends and identified outliers. S/he will have historical data and will have all the required data cuts (for instance, by geography, by products, by business units). Use this existing analysis as much as you can (mainly because it saves time and it is duplication of work, but also because you are unlikely to find something the analyst hasn’t already discovered).

You then need to build on this regular analysis. Regular reporting and analysis may have a very different purpose to your WHY. There could be a lot of overlap and wherever there is overlap, you can use existing reports directly. But if not, then you need to work on building what you want.

Always involve your team’s analyst in all your discussions (starting from the WHY meeting). Don’t tell them the final result you expect. This person is looking at your data every single day and will have some surprising insights for you right from day 1. This could save you a lot of time and effort. Even if this analyst is a part of your BIU, involve him/her right at the beginning. This will help build a rapport with the analyst and will also give him/her valuable insights on how the business runs. Data can only tell him/her a part of the story. Unless s/he has a business understanding, the analysis could turn out to be just numbers.

Also keep in mind that your BIU could have built some complex models to support your WHY. Take time off to understand these models (if not the statistical calculations then at least the concepts). One, you will not sound like you have shrugged off the responsibility of data on to the analyst. Ensure that you are able to answer at least some basic questions on your own without having to surrender the floor to the analyst. Two, you have a better understanding of the business than your analyst and hence are likely to give much better inputs in the early stages of the analysis. (How an analysis can be correct in methodology but completely illogical otherwise deserves a blog post of its own!)

Build a STRUCTURE

Now that you have your WHY and you have your DATA, it is time to build a STRUCTURE and lend a flow to your presentation. There are many ways to structure a presentation. Here are just a few of them:

  • Long-term v/s Short-Term
  • Linear Structure / Timeline Structure
  • By geography / business units / objectives
  • By problem statements

No matter how you structure your presentation, keep going back to your WHY. If the structure is not helping you answer this WHY, then you need to rework it. You could build a structure that takes you away from your WHY by doing either of these two things – making it so rigid that there is no scope to completely answer the WHY or by making it so flexible that it can be expanded to answer a whole lot more than just your WHY. Both scenarios are not great. Of course, some amount of flexibility is required; your presentation must allow for discussion and interaction. But you cannot allow it to wander off and take you in a completely different direction. While this “wandering” needs to be managed during the meeting, by building an appropriate structure of the deck you have already made it easy for yourself to keep the focus on the WHY.

It is a great idea to draw your structure on a paper or a whiteboard. That way, it is there for your whole team to see and you could possibly have a quick discussion around it to ensure that you are not missing out on any major point. The biggest advantage is that a pen (or marker) gets your thought process going in a way that no keyboard can accomplish.

Add your MATERIAL

Now that you have built a structure, it is time to add you MATERIAL. Look at the structure and identify the exact points that go into each section – the right place for the right point. Use post-it notes so that you can keep moving around the material till you are satisfied with the overall flow and are sure that you have covered everything.

Then you actually start your work in PowerPoint (or any other software you may be using). Your material will broadly consist of text, data and pictures (wherever applicable). Once again, you need to go back to your WHY. And you now need to ask HOW.

  • Should I make this point using a text box or should I use a chart? Or perhaps a picture (or a collage) is most appropriate here.
  • Is this the right chart type for my data? Each type of chart has a very specific use and applying the wrong type to your data can completely throw your presentation off the track.
  • Which point should I highlight on the slide? Is this the most important point? Can it be said in fewer words?
  • Can I further cut down my text by turning the material into bullet points? (It is an absolute no-no to add entire sentences to the slide. There is a very simple reason behind it. If you add a sentence, people will read it in their heads and you will be tempted to read it out loud when you are presenting. The audience would have finished reading it long before you do and they are more likely to get distracted as they wait for you to catch up.)
  • Is this chart absolutely necessary? Is it simply occupying too much space on the slide? Am I just trying to show off my Excel skills? Can a simple bullet point convey the information better?
  • Is the Y-axis on your charts starting at zero?
  • If there are multiple sections to your presentation, are the individual sections in logical order?

The best piece of advice I received right at the beginning of my career was to treat each slide as a piece of prime real estate. Would you waste valuable area on something that looks ugly / serves no purpose / makes no sense / doesn’t tie in with the rest of the matter? The moment you start connecting every bit of material you put on your slide with how it serves your WHY, you automatically start making better presentations.

Fix some STANDARDS

Ideally, you should already have some standards in place. All companies have standard, approved templates with brand colours and fonts and the brand logo. You should have these fixed standards with you at all times. They are critical when you are presenting to clients but are equally important for internal meetings. Rules are generally more relaxed for internal meetings. If you have no such rules or if you know that the rules are relaxed, then create your own rules.

  • Fix a standard font type and size for the slide title, section headings and body text. The same goes with colours.
  • Are your text boxes aligned?
  • Are your charts well-defined in terms of legends, labels, footnotes on units of measurement, etc.?
  • Are all your charts on one slide of the same size? If not, is the difference in size deliberate? Does it serve a purpose?

Over a period of time, you will arrive at your own set of rules. Often, multiple team members contribute to a single deck. Having these standards makes it easier to collate the slides and you can make the deck look like it was put together by one person. It might sound tedious to most people, but once you have your standard rules, it is hard to go back to improperly formatted presentations. It is great to create fancy presentations with a variety of shapes and charts and pictures to make your points. But unless you practice basic hygiene, the rest of it could go for a toss.

WAIT, BUT WHY

Now that you have prepared the initial draft of your presentation, it is time to see it once again (and preferably after a good night’s sleep). Even if you have written down your WHY, culled out relevant DATA and built a solid STRUCTURE around it, you might just be surprised at how easy it is to stray from the WHY when you finally start adding your MATERIAL.

Chances are that as you got into the details, you came across another point that you hadn’t accounted for in the STRUCTURE. And you thought to yourself: “Oh, how could I miss it?” and you went on to add it. And then that led to another point and then another and then yet another. Sometimes, this happens when you haven’t or couldn’t sufficiently analyse your DATA before building your STRUCTURE.

But it also happens because we are all extremely attached to things we work on. We want to showcase everything we do.

There’s also the FOMO effect – the fear of missing out. What if the boss wants to know about something and I haven’t covered it in my deck? I will look like a fool. So let me just throw in everything I have with me.

You have to be ruthless with your slides. Keep asking yourself WAIT, BUT WHY (another borrowed phrase, but so very useful while making presentations). If a slide is not essential but covers some basics, move it to the appendix or in another deck altogether. That way, it is still available with you but doesn’t interfere with the flow. Much as it may break your heart (or drive to tears the junior / intern who actually made the slides), don’t hesitate to hit the Delete button. If the slide doesn’t answer the WAIT, BUT WHY question, its fate is sealed. See if you can combine slides.

This stage also allows you to prepare for the actual delivery of the presentation. When you ask yourself WAIT, BUT WHY you are also preparing yourself for any questions your audience may have. It is also, unfortunately, the one stage for which we usually don’t have time.

Call-To-Action (CTA)

Does your presentation have a clearly defined CTA? You would have defined this in your WHY; but please ask yourself this question again.

Are you talking about all the things you have done well in the last year? Great. But is your CTA to get a mere pat on the back? Why not use this opportunity to ask for further resources? Or perhaps share your winning strategy and (humbly) point out how it can be implemented across the organisation so that everybody benefits. Talk about how you plan to build on your success. Firstly, this shows the management that your success can’t be put down to mere luck and second, you are a team player and willing help others. But most importantly, it shows you don’t plan to rest on your laurels. The CTA then doesn’t remain about appreciation for an individual but becomes all about the way forward for the whole team / organisation.

Are you talking about all the things that were a disaster last year and how you couldn’t perform? Remember that people don’t like it when others whine. They like it even less when the whining is accompanied by a 36-slide powerpoint presentation. No matter how bad performance has been, there are always lessons to learn – make sure you showcase those lessons. Then outline a plan you have to turn things around. If you are only whining, you subconsciously expect sympathy from the audience but that can come off as getting defensive. When you outline the steps you are taking, the CTA suddenly goes from listening to “excuses” to seeking solutions, asking for support and ultimately moving forward.

Are your creating a deck for training? Showcasing how the theory can be implemented in practice becomes your CTA.

Do you want to inspire your team in the face of challenges? Motivational videos and quotes fall short. Start with those if you wish. The CTA then consists of a series of steps they can individually implement to achieve organisational goals. Break down the challenge into smaller, easier-to-chew items.

FINAL PRESENTATION

After multiple iterations, you will create your final presentation. It is now time to deliver it. While corporate presentations are a regular affair, one still needs some preparation for it.

Before:

  • Practise the actual delivery of the presentation in front of a mirror if you have to. Or do a dry run with your team or peers if possible. Always remember that this is your presentation and your area of expertise. You own it and you have to guide the meeting. Even if you have a superior who will lead the meeting or the presentation, you are still in charge of your slides. If you don’t know your matter well (or you do know it well but falter in the delivery), it will reflect badly on you. Seek help from a superior or a trusted peer to help you present confidently.
  • Anticipate the questions and prepare possible answers. When you are in your WAIT BUT WHY stage, you would have already figured out some questions to be anticipated. But it pays to conduct this exercise yet again.
  • Check if the projector and screen are working fine. Many colours that look great on your laptop screen look horrendous on a projector screen and vice versa.
  • If you have any audio / video material, are the speakers working fine? Will the last person in the room be able to hear / see the material?
  • Ensure the audience has confirmed attendance. Ensure a sufficiently large meeting room is available. Ensure refreshments will be served at the appropriate time. Usually there will be secretaries to take care of this. But if not, then have it arranged for.
  • Stock up on all the materials you need beforehand. Does your presentation involve a team activity or a brainstorming session? Get your post-its and markers well in advance.
  • If you are presenting on client premises or some external premises, get in touch with a person who will help you with all the facilities and support you will need. Communicate your requirements well in advance and confirm arrangements a day prior to the meeting.
  • Ensure the laptop and projector are fully charged. Carry a spare charger if required.
  • If appropriate, send out the deck in advance. Or send out a communication outlining the broad structure. It will help you set the agenda and will help control the “meandering”.
  • Just before you get into the meeting, switch off your phone or at least put it on Silent mode.
  • Ensure you are neatly and appropriately dressed for the occasion. If you are not sure about what is expected, formal beats informal always.

During:

  • Start by outlining the goal of the meeting and give a brief on the structure. Create a link between the last communication you had with your audience and the meeting agenda. Tell them upfront why they should sit through your slides. Your audience immediately knows what to expect and is less likely to drift off.
  • Be confident and maintain eye contact with everybody in the audience.
  • Ensure you address individuals appropriately if you need to call out to somebody specifically.
  • Gently but firmly guide the audience away from any cross-talk.
  • If a question is posed that you have an answer to in a later slide, inform the audience. You could give a quick answer and tell them you will get to the details later or you could tell them that you have a slide on the topic but would like to complete the topic in hand first. When you get to the slide, specifically mention that you would now like to answer the question raised earlier by the audience.
  • If a question is posed to which you have no answer, you must say that you will get back on it. Note the point yourself.
  • If the conversation around the table meanders away from your WHY, gently guide the group back on track. This takes considerable skill and can be especially difficult when the senior-most executive in the room is leading the meandering. You must not appear rude or selfish, but you must not appear to be a walk-over either.
  • Verbally summarise the points discussed at the end of the meeting to ensure you have covered everything.

After:

  • Immediately collate notes on the meeting with your team. If a person was designated to minute the meeting, discuss it with him / her while the matter is still fresh in your minds.
  • Properly formulate the minutes of the meeting. This includes all CTAs and assigning responsibility for each item.
  • If appropriate, share the deck with the audience.
  • Respond to any questions you may not have answered during the presentation. This could be through email or phone call or another meeting.

A presentation is a tool to guide a discussion towards a pre-decided goal. It can appear to be a daunting task but it need not be something to dread. And as it the case with any other skill, practise does make one perfect.

Happy presenting!

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A tragedy waiting to happen

The day started as most working days do – jumping out of bed as the alarm goes off, firing instructions to the cook, getting ready, coordinating with the carpool…

We cross Wadala and it starts to pour. With the rain lashing against the windshield, we wonder how our colleagues who come to office on a bike are doing. Mumbai had assumed that the monsoons are over and every Mumbaikar is unprepared. Turns out, it’s not the only thing we weren’t prepared for.

It is around 11 AM when the news starts trickling in. One of our worst nightmares has come true. There has been a stampede at Elphinstone/Parel railway station. The death toll is being reported as 3 at this point; but as anybody who has ever seen the FOB at peak hour will tell you, the count is only going to rise.

I start contacting friends and colleagues who I know commute by local trains. Around me, I can see bosses discreetly doing headcounts. The phones start ringing with colleagues, friends and family members checking in.

The Parel/Elphinstone stations were never built to accommodate a large volume of commuters. The platform is narrow and the two stations share a bridge. The approach roads to both these stations are narrow. There is a garbage dump right outside the ticket window that overflows on to the road.  When the British were planning the city, the Parel/Elphinstone area was occupied by textile mills. The hundreds and thousands of mill workers lived in chawls on one side of the road and simply crossed the road to get to their workplaces. Their kids studied in nearby schools. The local train network would be used only for the occasional visit to relatives elsewhere. All that changed at the turn of the century. Today, the only remnants of the textile mill era are the chawls and the names of the mills on shiny visiting cards. Glass buildings now overshadow the mill chimneys. Most people who live in the chawls haven’t found work in the new offices. And nobody who works in these swanky buildings lives in the chawls; people no longer hop across the road to get to their workplace. They either drive down (like I do today) or they use the trains (like I used to a couple of years ago).

By now, everybody I know of has been tracked and marked as safe. At the lunch table, around the coffee machines, in restrooms and meeting rooms alike, the conversations invariably are about the stampede. Everywhere around people are talking about how they narrowly missed being caught in it. Some people came to work early (today being the last working day of H1) and some people hopped into a cab because of the heavy downpour in the morning. The general feeling of isn’t that of shock (that it happened) or relief (that they narrowly escaped). It is of helplessness. It is like everybody always knew that this would happen; that it was a matter of when rather than if.

As the day goes by, the tragedy & general sense of gloom starts to wear off. But then it strikes again. We start getting messages that an injured colleague is no more. By the time we pack up and call it a day, the toll from our office alone is 3. I suddenly start praying that these are just rumors. I don’t know these 3 people. We work in the same building, yes, but I don’t know them personally. But I am sure that we have crossed paths. Perhaps I shared the elevator with them… Maybe I have stood behind them in the queue for lunch…

I reach home late in the evening and refuse to switch on the TV. I have stayed away from Twitter practically all day. I have a fair idea of what is going to be covered on prime time news. An all-round shouting session blaming the civic authorities… Insensitive questions to the victims’ family and friends… Gruesome pictures playing in a loop… The lone voice arguing that the common Mumbaikar should have been more “disciplined and should not have panicked”…. Somebody wanting to stop the bullet train… But I want none of that right now. The tragedy has struck too close home.

For the longest time ever, I have believed in the ever-resilient spirit of Mumbai. I am proud to belong to this city. But today, can we all please accept the truth? The spirit, while still stronger than most others, is getting weaker; it is bruised and battered. It has been put through the wringer on more occasions than people care to remember. Without sufficient nurturing and nourishment, the best of us can waste away and die.

Make no mistake – when the city floods over the next time around, we will still rush to pull people out of open manholes and we will offer food and shelter to those stuck in the rains. When there is another terrorist attack, we will rush the survivors to nearby hospitals in our cars and cabs and we will help pull out the dead. When another building collapses, we will rush in to move the debris and search for survivors. When another train derails or another stampede is caused due to administrative negligence, we will still rush in to help.  We will do all of this and we will be back the very next day like nothing ever happened.

But do remember, that every such “next day” will be followed by a number of nights where we will lie awake in our beds and wonder: whatever happened to the people responsible for managing the civic administration, to the system which is omnipresent while collecting hefty taxes but evaporates into thin air when the time comes to spend money for the taxpayers, to the people who have made their fortunes in the maximum city but have done so by killing the proverbial golden-egg-laying-hen? Where is their “Spirit of Mumbai”?

Cinderella learns to code!!!

Cindy was an exhausted soul of 24 years. At the age of 15, she had lost her father – a tragic event at any age, but even more so for a teenage girl. Her mother had remarried a year later. The man in question had two girls from an earlier marriage and seemed to be interested in Mother for the sole purpose of a substantial bank balance Father had left behind. What spell Step-Father cast on Mother, Cindy had no idea. Within months of meeting him Mother was only listening to his advice, especially regarding money matters. After their marriage, Cindy hoped to have a complete family again, but alas. Slowly, the money disappeared. But Step-Father convinced Mother that this was just a bad patch. Only Cindy noticed that her Step-Sisters were leading increasingly lavish lifestyles.

On the eve of her 25th birthday, Cindy tried hard to stay up till the clock struck 12. She knew nobody would wish her. She knew there would be no cake and no gifts. The last 8 years or so had turned her into a bitter person. Gone was her childhood home – the walls that once reverberated with peals of Father’s laughter now only hid Mother’s quiet sobs, Step-Father’s drunken, violent outbursts (with Cindy as the usual target) and Step-Sisters’ evil grins as they spent some more of Father’s money. The only memory of happy times was the great grandfather clock that stood down the hallway. Step-Father hadn’t pawned it off yet; turns out not too many people had a fancy for grandfather clocks these days.

Cindy was trying hard to read a book and keep herself awake, when she heard somebody call out to her. She looked up and was stunned to see Fairy Godmother. Fairy Godmother told Cindy that there was a ball in town, that Stepsisters’ were going and that she must go too – the host had recently been voted as the Most Eligible Bachelor in the country! She conjured a lovely dress out of her rags and a superb car out of the rat in the house and told Cindy that she must be back by the time the clock strikes 12 – or else… With this warning hanging in the air, Fairy Godmother disappeared. Cindy wore the gorgeous dress and was admiring herself in the mirror when the clock struck 12.

Cindy woke up with a start and desperately looked around for Fairy Godmother. She wanted to tell her that she still had to go to the ball and that she needed the dress and the car. She wanted to tell her the she hadn’t meant to idle in front of the mirror till the clock struck 12. But Fairy Godmother was nowhere to be found. Cindy saw herself staring in the mirror and it slowly dawned on her that she had been dreaming. It crushed Cindy to know that she had only dreamt of an escape and that her reality was nowhere close to changing. As she continued to stare at her reflection in the mirror, Cindy realized that she was her own Fairy Godmother. And since nobody would anyway give her a gift, it was time that she gifted herself something really special – freedom!

That day – Cindy’s 25th birthday – Cindy was reborn. She started taking up classes again. Soon, R wasn’t just the 18th alphabet of the English language and Python was no longer a poisonous creature. She gave up her job in a local café and started working in the local library. The switch earned her extra reading time apart from the money.

She often wondered what had caused her to take control of her own life. And why Mother seemed incapable of doing the same (even though Cindy tried so hard to get her to change things). She tried to look through books for an answer, but for once, she was disappointed.

One fine day, a young man approached her and asked for her help in finding a particular book. The man was studying social media and its impact on human psychology.

That chance encounter led Cindy to think further – if social media could change the way the human mind thinks, then surely social media also carried clues on how the human mind was currently thinking. And if that were true, then was it possible to measure how somebody would react to stress purely based on what they posted on social media? Cindy stayed up all night long developing a code to help understand how a particular person would react to stress based on his/her most recent social media activity.

Soon Cindy was talking to experts in the field of human psychology to further refine her model. The student who had triggered her thought process was now one of her closest friends. Cindy went on to publish a blog and with a wider audience, Cindy found a way to monetize her model. Soon, her model was used by airlines to measure a pilot’s stress levels just hours before s/he was due for a long haul flight. Oil rigs used it for their offshore employees. The local law enforcement brought her on board as a consultant for helping them manage the stress levels of their workforce.

Today, exactly 1 year, 3 months and 5 days after her Fairy Godmother moment, Cindy bought her own car. As she sat thinking of her journey to independence and freedom, a ping interrupted her flow of thoughts. She opened her inbox to find an invitation to speak at a prestigious data science event.

The other speakers include a man whose work she has long admired and who recently reached out to her via email expressing interest on collaborating with her on his next project…

(This re-writing of a much loved fairy tale is my first draft and is inspired by two unrelated events taking place on the same day. My friend, Amrita Chhabria, prompted me to re-write Cinderella. And Twitter provided the rest of the inspiration with #WITBragDay.

A big thank you to all the wonderful women out there who inspire me every single day by being the author of their own stories!)

A question of pens…

For most of us, pens serve as the markers of our growing up years. The memory of that moment in your life when you were first allowed to write with a pen is special. It is a graduation without the ceremony – from being allowed to write only with pencils to being considered responsible enough to use a pen. The pen is also associated with our first attempts at philosophy – countless students have written an essay on “The pen is mightier than the sword!” Ink pens have also marked the frustration of our teenage years with leaky nibs, blotting paper, spoilt school uniforms and the constant fear of the inkpot going dry. Then came the ball points and felt tips and that felt like another graduation – welcome to a world of convenience!

But it isn’t until you start working in a corporate environment that you realize the true importance of a pen! Sure, we have a variety of paperless options for organizing our day, taking notes, making lists, etc. Why, these new tools even sync across devices and organize themselves into neat, color-coded folders, so you never have to miss a thing. But for a large number of people the old paper-and-pen route is still the best. After working in a corporate set-up for nearly a decade, I can vouch for the immense satisfaction derived from writing down a to-do list at the beginning of the day and then scratching things off it.

pen-in-diary-istock

Note-taking is the one thing everybody leaves out of the job description!

During meetings, my pen and diary are my best friends – I can look attentive by simply making notes and when it gets boring beyond all belief I can save myself from the embarrassment of falling asleep by doodling on the top right hand corner of the page.

And that brings me to a peculiar, behavioral economics question – a question of pens!

Let us try to describe this commodity in economic terms:

Price – A pen can cost as less as Rs. 2 and can be as expensive as $ 1.3 million (I am not even going to convert that).

diamante

Diamante by Aurora – It will set you back by $1.3 million but it won’t think and write on your behalf.

Functionality – All pens are able to write and the wide range of prices is not reflective of any substantial additional functionality. If you take a standard ballpoint and simply start drawing a continuous line, you will be able to go for a little over 2 kilometers before you run out of ink. For the average user, that means a month’s worth of writing. The really cheap varieties might run out of ink around the 1.5-kilometer mark; while the really expensive ones are unlikely to last beyond 3 kilometers. There is, of course, the matter of smooth flow of ink in the more expensive pens. But does the smooth flow of ink warrant the crazy price tags? I wouldn’t know.

Supply – In terms of availability in the market, pens are in abundance. In terms of availability at the exact moment when you need it, pens can be remarkably scarce. We have all been to a bank branch / a government office / airport check-in counters and at the exact moment when you need to sign your name, your pen will insist on crawling into the darkest, most unreachable corner of your purse. The situation only gets worse in offices, especially during meetings.

And that, my dear friends, is my problem! How do I save my pens from the preying eyes of my colleagues who need a pen but couldn’t be bothered to carry one around?

I have been, unfortunately, assigned a seat very close to a meeting room and that has inadvertently made me the victim of a purely unintentional and vastly irritating crime – a petty theft of pens. To those who have caused me so much mental agony I only wish to ask this – when you know you are going to attend a meeting and have carried a diary to take notes, is it so difficult to remember to carry a pen? Over the last few years, I have spent more on replacing borrowed (stolen) pens than any other piece of office stationery.

I believe in sharing and am usually generous with my possessions, but I have learnt the hard way that sharing is not a virtue when it comes to pens. Numerous colleagues have borrowed pens for “just a moment” with promises to return them “as soon as the meeting is over” but very few have actually followed through on that! When a colleague borrowed a pen costing a hundred bucks and did not bother to return it, I knew the time had come to take protective measures.

And thus started a series of self-designed and entirely unscientific experiments to save my pens!

Experiment 1:

I purchased a pack of 20 pens that cost Rs. 5 each and left ten of them in the pen stand on my desk in plain sight. Colleagues rushing into meetings usually request to borrow a pen as merely a polite thing to do – nobody thinks you could be cheap enough to refuse. I figured that by leaving pens on the desk I wasn’t really going to make any difference. It turns out that I lost every single one of them in less than a week! My experience suggested that since I had left a bunch of pens in plain sight, people did not really think that returning pens was necessary because “there were more where this one came from”.

Experiment 2:

Having learnt a lesson from Experiment 1, I decided to keep out only one pen at a time. I ended up losing all pens again; however this happened over a two-week period.

Experiment 3:

Having lost 20 pens in less than a month, I decided to buy 5 of the cheapest pens available. These 2-buck pens wrote fairly well but looked every bit their down-market price. In fact, a couple of colleagues walked up to my desk to borrow a pen, saw the cheap wares I had laid out and promptly asked my neighbor if they could borrow his pen! However, when the pens were borrowed, not a single one was returned! I suppose people worked it out that since I hadn’t bothered to spend even a slightly respectable amount on the pens I wasn’t expecting them back in any case.

Experiment 4:

There is no experiment 4 since I cannot afford any more experiments.

Across my 5-week long experiment, I learnt some truths about human nature:

  1. The higher up in the corporate hierarchy you are, the less likely you are to carry a pen. And you most definitely could not be bothered to return the ones that you borrow.
  2. The lower down the pecking order you are, the less likely you are to go around borrowing pens. On the rare occasion that the need arises, you will scrupulously return the pen.
  3. If you borrow a pen, forget to return it and the owner walks up to you to politely demand the said pen, you will look at him/her like he/she is the world’s rudest, most ungrateful person.
  4. If the borrowed pen is expensive, you will keep it because you really enjoyed the smooth ink flow.
  5. If the borrowed pen is cheap, you will keep it because the lender is too cheap to stock decently priced pens.
  6. The lender’s designation is critical to the return of pens. I suppose not too many people want to get on the wrong side of the department head’s personal assistant.

I request you to suggest solutions to my peculiar problem. The money I spend on pens is not so high that I can refuse to lend them altogether. But having to constantly replenish stocks is really annoying and is an entirely avoidable inconvenience. Also, refusing to lend makes me look cheap, as does demanding their return. (I am, in fact, dreading that my colleagues will read this blog and that will lead to my reputation being tarnished beyond repair.)

Does anybody have an answer to my question of pens?

P.S.: A few days ago I came across research on another peculiar, behavioral economics question – that of reclining airplane seats. Do you automatically gain the rights to recline your seat or does the person being reclined upon have a say in the matter? While I have not been involved in any fist-fights (yet) with regards to lending/borrowing pens, I do strongly believe that we must find a solution to this problem. I urge economists, psychologists, management gurus and other experts to please pay attention to this simmering issue. In case you are interested in finding out more about reclining airplane seats, do read: How to resolve fights over reclining airplane seats

Big Little Lies – Hiding an uncomfortable truth in plain sight

(Spolier Alert: You have been warned!)

 

The HBO miniseries Big Little Lies caught my attention because Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman were producing and starring in it and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. (Confession: I haven’t read Liane Moriarty’s eponymous book.)

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Bixby Creek Bridge

The opening scenes had my attention – the insanely beautiful Bixby Creek Bridge in Monterey, California and panoramic views of the Pacific Coast. The title track shows all the moms in the story driving their kids to school. That, in itself, is an unremarkable, routine act. And yet, like everything else on the show, it hides so much – primarily, the physical and emotional effort required to keep up the façade of normalcy.

The first few scenes of the series lead you to believe that this is yet another show about beautiful, confident women living in multi-million dollar mansions, wearing expensive clothes, and bitching about each other. Except for Jane (Shailene Woodley), none of them need to worry about money and even Jane seems to have managed after Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) puts in a word or two for her.

The show is supposed to be about a murder mystery but until the very last scenes of the last episode we know little about the murder itself- who was killed, who killed and the motive. Rest assured the answers to all three questions are stunning in their simplicity. All we know is that it happened on the Audrey Hepburn-Elvis Presley themed Trivia Night.

It is the show’s rambling build-up to the night in question (told through a series of police interviews of fringe characters discussing the events leading to the murder) that furthers the belief that the main characters lead perfect lives and this is just another out-of-touch-with-reality, bordering-on-voyeurism TV series that isn’t really going anywhere. The director (Jean-Marc Vallée) has used this style of narration excellently to hit home a reality – the ugly truth often hides in plain sight and even masquerades as perfection.

Domestic abuse and sexual abuse are uncomfortable topics and we more often than not sweep things under the carpet. We find it easier to maintain the pretense of happiness than have the courage to face the truth. The series’ title doesn’t just refer to the big little lie (or a minor alteration of truth) all the main characters tell to protect the killer; the title also refers to the big little lie that we tell ourselves everyday – that this doesn’t happen to “us”, it only happens to “them”.

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The Wrights – It’s all so wrong…

Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) have a marriage (and sex life) that is the envy of the town and even of their closest friends – Madeleine and her second husband Ed (Adam Scott). But the veneer of perfect happiness hides a great deal of hitting, kicking, choking and even rape. The cycle of abuse that is the Wright marriage is all about violence followed by romantic wooing, expensive gifts, a trip to the marriage counselor, a promise to change, only to be followed by another fit of rage. By her own admission, Celeste also hits back but is never really able to stop the abuse. As an intelligent, successful (albeit retired) lawyer with obvious financial resources of her own, Celeste is the very opposite of what you would expect a victim of abuse to be like. And yet, there she is, applying concealer on her cheeks and her wrist before she goes out to enjoy a cup of coffee with her best friends at an idyllic café on the wharf.

 

Jane Chapman, as a single mom with limited means, is struggling to bring up her son Ziggy who is the result of a date rape. And the struggle isn’t just financial; it is more acutely emotional. That she is single and yet not wanting a man in her life is the least of the emotional scars of her rape. Her constant fear that her rapist might somehow find her and hurt her again and her rising panic that those violent genes may have been passed on to her son are the real long term effects of abuse. Tellingly, her recurring dreams are not of the actual rape itself but of confronting her rapist. She doesn’t just dream of shooting him, she also has nightmares of jumping / falling off the cliff.

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Jane Chapman – Not running away, just running

The only way that she is able to keep it all together is by running. For me, Jane running is a heart-rending portrayal of how we deal with events that change our life forever. That is Jane’s “me” time – when she allows herself to be scared and to actually deal with the psychological aftermath of the rape. After the run, it is back to the business of packing lunch boxes and following up with clients for payments.

 

Big Little Lies deals with both, the progression of abuse and what happens after the incident. The rising crescendo of violence in Celeste’s life, the impact on children around abuse, and Jane’s long and arduous journey towards healing have all been beautifully portrayed by using silence. Silence is the way abuse functions. The perpetrator manages to shut out the rest of the world and with no fear of punishment (legal or otherwise) continues to abuse. What else can explain how a father manages to kick the mother of his children while those children play in the adjoining room? Not only that, the perpetrator threatens more abuse to extract silence from the victim. The victim suffers in silence not because she can’t scream for help but because she feels lonely. She feels lonely to an extent where she is not able to confide in her best friend. She feels fear but the silence has paralyzed her to inaction. And the children, the collateral damage of abuse, use silence too. One of the best scenes is when one of the boys hears Perry beating Celeste. He looks at his brother, who has his headphones on, and then simply proceeds to put on his own pair of headphones. What better way of silencing abuse than turning up the volume of something else and distracting yourself? As far as Big Little Lies is concerned, silence is deafening.

The absolutely stunning shooting locations provide the perfect backdrop for highlighting the underlying theme of Big Little Lies. They are a gentle but constant reminder that domestic & physical abuse exists everywhere. Socio-economic status, level of education and the GDP of a country are no guarantee either of or against abuse. And perhaps the only way to stop it (or at least reduce it) is to stop lying to ourselves and to others – it doesn’t just happen to “them”, it also happens to “us”.

There is nothing that I have written here that other, far more influential writers haven’t already written. And my blog is read by only a handful of friends – but I am still writing it and publishing it because we need more conversations on abuse. Let’s face it; the perpetrators are rarely going to talk about it. But the victims might and the spectators certainly should. The unfortunate, scary reality of abuse (domestic / physical / sexual) is that it is so widespread that none of us can ever claim that we do not know a single victim or perpetrator. (Why, we might be either of them ourselves!) You could claim that you do not know anybody “like that” because none of “them” ever confided in you. But before you dismiss the question, do ask yourself this: did you ever notice the concealer but chose to believe it was covering a pimple? Did you ever use those headphones so that you didn’t have to listen to something?

 

This blog is the first in a series on Big Little Lies – the show simply refuses to go away quietly.

Rewriting fairy tales – Cinderella

Sure, as a child I enjoyed Cinderella’s story as much as the next girl. But over the years, I have had a feeling that the tale needs to be re-written. Not because it is not entertaining in its current form. But because we really need to teach our kids slightly different lessons. Times are changing and our fairy tales need to change too.

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Change # 1

In the original, Cinderella suffers in silence when her step-mother and step-sisters ill-treat her. She would pray each night for strength to put up with the abuse. Perhaps for the times when the tale was originally written, women didn’t really have a way out. But in today’s day and age, we need to teach our girls (and boys) the value of speaking up. Or at the very least knowing that they can work their way out of an unfavourable situation.

Change # 2

Cinderella is helped by a fairy godmother to provide her with nice clothes and a ride to the ball. In the real world there are no fairy godmothers and no glass slippers. In my rewritten version, I would rather have Cinderella saving up and buying her own dress (which does not turn back to rags at the stroke of the midnight hour). She doesn’t rely on rats and rabbits and lizards (and other figures of the animal kingdom depending on which version was read out to you). Cinderella drives around herself.

Change # 3

Actually in my fairy tale, Cinderella doesn’t go to the ball at all. The prince hosts a ball to find a suitable wife. In my story, Cinderella decides she doesn’t need a man to get out of her situation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for falling in love and settling down. But if you decide that marriage is the only way to rescue yourself from your situation, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of disappointments. And you will probably end up making another person’s life miserable too.

Change # 4

The prince is not smitten by Cinderella’s beauty. He is smitten by her brains and her grit and gumption. Quite simply, physical beauty is temporary. You will grow old, get wrinkles and your hair will start greying (if you don’t start balding first, that is) But your attitude will remain with you forever and will pull you out of tight spots. And for the prince to fall in love with Cinderella’s personality, he will have to meet her in a situation very different from a ball…

 

Fairy tales were written to amuse, entertain and subtly educate on morals / ethics too. But they are also a reflection of societal attitudes. And they therefore need to keep up with the times. And who better than you and me to rewrite these tales?

Of Paris, Shakespeare and George W Bush…

When I was planning a trip to Paris, one of my dearest friends told me to visit Shakespeare and Company. In a proud French city, it is a resolutely English-only bookstore. And so, one cloudy May morning I stepped into this quaint store on rue de la Bucherie.

I switch off from the outside world when I read (and write). I can’t hear the doorbell and I can go without food for hours. Take that and multiply it by about a thousand times and you get Shakespeare and Company.

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The gateway to another world

It is a place where the walls have disappeared behind Hemingway, Tolstoy and, of course, Shakespeare. Conversations are actively discouraged – even the cashiers speak in hushed tones. You are, however, welcome to play the little piano on the first floor. An imperious black cat roams around in the shop window (and there are explicit instructions to not disturb it).

Have you ever fantasized about taking off with your pen & paper and retiring to a place where you are allowed to read and write in peace and yet the arts and the culture are not too far away? Where people do not bother you with such mundane matters like how you will pay your rent? If yes, then Shakespeare and Company is the place for you. The bookstore supports aspiring writers by offering them lodging (in the heart of Paris). These people work in the store through the day and pursue their literary dreams in the night.

The bookstore houses Sylvia Beach’s collection. Readers are welcome to plonk themselves on the couches and go through her collection for as long as they like, but these books are not on sale.  Beach, an American expatriate, ran the original Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. That one closed down during the Second World War and never reopened. The current one (established by George Whitman) was first called Le Mistral but was renamed after Beach’s death as a tribute to her. (She had handed over the rights to the name years earlier.) Whitman continued Beach’s tradition of supporting writers and both stores have been at the heart of the literary scene in Paris. Whitman’s daughter (named Sylvia Beach Whitman) continues to run the store. Shakespeare and Company also holds writers’ discussions, poetry sessions and the like.

 

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2nd hand books, 1st hand memories

On the footpath outside the store lies a trunk filled with second hand books. You can donate your old books to the trunk and pick up second hand ones cheap. And that is how I bought Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?

(In case you are really interested in my review of this book, here goes – Moore takes down Bush, Blair & Co. ruthlessly with transcripts of their own press conferences. Read it because it makes you think of how we have all grown accustomed to living in fear and how we meekly swallow whatever the political powers dish out to us. Read it because it will make you want to think on your own and not accept the news-channel version blindly. Bonus? Moore brandishes the sarcasm sword rather effectively.)

 

 

As I sat down to write a review of the book, I realized that the book was special to me not because of its content but because of how I came to own it. Every time I look at Moore and Bush on the cover, I am reminded of one lovely Parisian morning when I soaked in the smell of ink and paper… Of a morning spent in absolute calm and peace with a hundred other book-loving souls; each one a complete stranger and yet each one so comfortingly familiar…  Of a place where time has no meaning; because the past and the future really do meet here – one looks benignly at you from the lovingly crammed shelves, the other swipes your card and wraps your buys in little brown paper bags…

After all, isn’t that what reading is all about? Isn’t it more of an experience rather than an activity to gather information and entertain yourself? Isn’t reading all about enriching the journey rather than arriving at the destination? And don’t we all have some books that are more special than others? And while each book tells you a story, don’t you also write a story with the book? I invite you, my dear friends, to share the stories you have written with your books… #MyBookStory