Nov 25, 2015

An ode to sunshine

Bright sunshine after more than 2 weeks and I feel so happy and cheerful. The rains, the wind and the dark skies were so depressing to me. I was feeling sad, dull and irritated. The effects on the mind had an impact on the body too, with severe stomach cramps and loss of appetite. And not to forget the excruciating migraine and the nausea. I felt so sick that I didn't have the enthusiasm and the motivation to do anything. Dull and dragging days. The slight sight of the sunshine and I would feel exhilarated, only to find minutes later the dark skies and the rains again. The wet clothes that are hanging forever to get dried; wearing sweaters, socks and thermal wears all the time - Nope, not my kind of weather at all.

I completely understand that my plight is nothing compared to those who suffered so much in Tamilnadu with floods entering their homes, lack of food and proper sanitation. The videos shared on FB are so scary that I prayed for the water logging to be cleared soon and people return to their homes safely and resume their normal lives.

Finally to see the sunshine today, I feel like I have regained my mojo and back to my form now. I opened all the curtains and let my rooms experience the bright light. I cleared up a pile of clothes, put 2 rounds of laundry, picked up all the books and papers lying around and made my home a lot more presentable. I played my favorite songs in my iPod after a while….And the irony is that the album I chose to listen is "kadal" :-) One of my all-time favorite albums of ARR. I bet one of the best pick-me-up songs is "elay keechan". Don't you agree?

Nov 20, 2015

Why customers value your product?

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One of the important lessons I learnt in product marketing is - Emphasizing on benefits (and not features) is extremely important when it comes to marketing collaterals and product messaging. Most of the times, we don't give much thought into the benefits our product offers to your customers. We get obsessed about the cool features of our product and our messaging would proudly list them out. Even if we do talk about the benefits, it's more superficial and biased by our own assumptions and experiences. But if we dig deeper, we can figure out the actual value our product can bring into the lives of customers. I call it the "benefits discovery" exercise. This can be done before launch - either as part of your customer development interviews, MVP validation or usability testing feedback.

Ask this one question repeatedly to atleast 12-15 target customers:

 "How does that help you?"

To illustrate the power of this simple question, let me take you through an app that I adore. It's a maps-based mobile app that helps me to track where my daughter's school bus is. Simple information but tremendous value it brings to my morning rush.

How does this tracking information help me?

It helps me to know exactly how far the bus is from my home.

How does that help me?

So I can decide when I need to step out of my apartment with my daughter
So I don't have to go to the front gate early and wait for the bus
So I don't have to cross the road and let my daughter inhale the vehicle polluted air
So I don't have to look at the piled up traffic and get frustrated with the number of single-person self-driven sedans and SUVs

A simple location-tracking app is helping a little bit towards my health and my daughter's health, helping us manage time and catch the bus without any issues.

I can't imagine how I managed earlier when I didn't have this app. On those days (like today), when the app didn't work for some reason, I find it extremely difficult to manage.

If your product/app provides certain information, try to understand deeper on why this information is important to your customers and how does that impact their lives, their routine etc. Interviewing with open-ended, unbiased and empathetic questions can help you figure out the benefits in more depth and can give a lot of clarity. This can eventually empower you to create powerful and compelling messaging for your marketing campaigns.

Try it out and let me know if it works for you.

Nov 17, 2015

How to incorporate exercise as a habit

The last 10 days have been raining heavily and Bangalore is at a freezing cold temperature in the mornings. It would be nice and comforting to snuggle inside a cozy blanket and get some more sleep. But my body clock wakes me up on time for my Yoga class.

It's been 6 months now since I started doing Yoga and it has become a part of my routine now. On days when there is no Yoga class, I feel something is missing and my body also feels the same. It has taken me so many years to incorporate a regular exercise regime in my day. I find keeping my eating habits under check relatively easier than doing regular exercise. I had struggled, been lazy, gave myself enough excuses over and again but Yoga has finally helped me to break all the obstacles that I had built for myself. If you are like me who is struggling to get some exercise into your routine, the following 6 tips might be helpful.

(1) Try multiple forms of exercise and pick the one that you like the most
For years, I have tried hitting the gym, jogging at the nearby park or a lake, at-home aerobics, brisk walking and even tried to learn swimming. But I hadn't been consistent at any of these. I had tried Yoga for a few weeks at home by myself after my awesome Swaswara trip. But the motivation didn't last long. This time, I found a Yoga class being organized in my apartment and it has clicked for me. Don't give up if you find a form of an exercise boring. Keep trying new ways until you figure out the one that you enjoy.

(2) Choose the one that offers low resistance to get started
By low resistance, I mean the one that doesn't provide you many excuses to quit early. When I started jogging at a nearby lake, I enjoyed it for a few days. But the walk from my home to the lake is taxing and I would eventually end up using this distance as an excuse to quit. The same problem happened when I was enquiring about Yoga classes in a center which was around a km from my home. I'm sticking to my present Yoga classes because it happens within my apartment complex and at a convenient time of 7 AM. Make a list of common excuses that your mind throws when you begin an exercise routine. Don't resist but be aware of them. See if you can appease some of these excuses, particularly those with respect to time, distance, schedule etc.

(3) Try to compete with yourself, not others
If you are amidst other people either in a gym or a class, do not compare yourself with others. You would come across people who are better than you, can jog for a longer duration, can stretch a lot more, have more stamina etc. But don't let that demotivate you so much that you end up quitting. Set targets for yourself and make minor improvements everyday. If I'm stretching for a Yoga pose and my instructor counts upto 10, I would see how much longer I can hold. If I was able to hold for 5 counts, I set a target for 6 counts the next day. I have no idea how others in the class are progressing. I'm focused on myself and see how I can improve a little better today. It's like a game I play in my mind where I set achievable targets.

(4) Focus on the work, not on the outcome
I know it's easier said than done, in a results-oriented world we live in. But this really seems to be working for me. In my "Weekly goals" plan, I set a goal that I should go for atleast 4 Yoga classes every week. The goal is not about weight loss or inches loss which I may or may not be able to influence completely. If I keep being regular at my exercise routine, I believe the outcomes would eventually fall in place. So instead of checking if the weighing scale is showing any improvements every week, try setting measurable goals that are focused on the work to be done.

(5) Make friends, form a group, find a partner
Being amongst a group of people with a common objective really helps you to be regular at your exercise routine. If not a group, atleast find one other person - a friend, a colleague or a neighbor so you can motivate each other. I think this is one of the important reasons why I have been consistent with Yoga but got so bored in a quiet and lonely gym. There's more people to talk to, have fun and crib about "sore pains" :-)

(6) Find an instructor or a mentor who will push you
When I used to do Yoga on my own, I never pushed myself to stretch a little more or hold for few more seconds in an asana pose. As humans, we love comfort and our minds wouldn't want us to step out of our cozy comfort zone on a normal day. But eventually our bodies would get used to any exercise routine, unless we keep increasing the stretch limit. I'm so grateful to have found a Yoga instructor who pushes me every single day and helps me to understand how much I'm capable of. I have improved step by step in getting many asanas right in the last 6 months.

Sitting is the new smoking for our current generation. So keep moving, be physically active and try to get some exercise into your day, however busy your schedule might be. Hope these 6 tips were helpful to you. Would love to hear your comments.

Nov 3, 2015

Buying clothes with a clear intent

 It's clearly etched in my mind. When I was a kid, we had a Godrej steel wardrobe in our home that had 4 shelves with a locker. The top-most shelf was used to keep unstitched dress materials, dhotis and other rarely used stuff. The second one was for my dad's clothes, the third one for my mom's and the bottom most shelf had mine and my brother's. These clothes were the ones we used to wear when we go out. The daily-wear clothes were kept separately outside in a trunk.

I remember we used to buy new clothes for two occasions - one for our birthday and the other for Diwali. The birthday purchase was done only for us, the kids. Our parents never bought anything for their respective birthdays. If there was a wedding or any other family function, new clothes would be purchased. Other than that, Diwali shopping was the only time when we buy new clothes for the entire family. And it used to be an exciting trip, going all the way to T.Nagar and hopping from one shop to the next. Rains would visit the city of Chennai exactly a week before Diwali but it wouldn't hamper our shopping plans.

20 years later, this is how the story of my wardrobe unfolds. I must tell you this in advance. I hate to shop for clothes and I don't buy that often. I'm a price-conscious consumer and so I don't shop at expensive places like M&S, Lifestyle etc. I also admit that I have made the mistake of buying less expensive clothes which eventually faded or shrunk after two washes.

I have a whole wardrobe to myself - with Western outfits, ethnic wear and sarees arranged neatly. Pregnancy and motherhood brought some changes to my size in the last 4 years, which the wardrobe accommodated gracefully. Thanks to Yoga and my food habits, I have brought myself back to my pre-pregnancy size.

Sometime in the end of Apr-2015, I took a pledge that I would only buy clothes with a clear intent or purpose. No random shopping anymore when I see something nice or when there is a sale. It's been 6 months now and I have stayed true to my pledge.

I got myself a top and a skirt for my birthday. There were a couple of unstitched salwar materials that were occupying space in my wardrobe. I got them stitched which I would be wearing for Diwali. I got a Shoppers Stop gift voucher which I redeemed to buy two simple kurtas (ensured that I didn't exceed the voucher limit).

Since the "inflow" of new clothes has almost stopped, it gives me enough space to think about the existing clothes. I gave away a few old salwar sets in good condition which I don't wear anymore. I started to wear sarees more often - for my weekly visit to a nearby temple or at home on special occasions.

There were a couple of close calls though. I did get tempted by some nice cotton kurtas when I visited Dastkar Nature Bazaar and Bhoomi Utsav but thankfully I didn't give in :-)

Being aware of what's inside your wardrobe, retaining the clothes that fit you well (and that you like to wear) and disposing off the remaining ones will give you the space and time to think through what you need and purchase only those whenever there's a sale or when you go shopping.

I plan to continue this habit in my journey towards leading a minimalistic lifestyle and hopefully, reach the one-shelf practice which my parents followed years ago.

There are three reasons why I'm going down this route:

(1) I'm fascinated by the idea of minimalistic living. For me, minimalism is not only about keeping the expenditure in control, but towards leading a simple living and cutting down on non-essentials.

(2) When choices are too many, it clutters our mind and hampers the decision making. I definitely don't want to spend a lot of time thinking "what to wear today?". Research has shown that too many decisions to be made in a day affects our cognitive abilities.

"decision-making is very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones."

(3) Clutter causes stress and anxiety. Over-crowded shelves, heaps and heaps of clothes piled up till the point it collapses are all possible sources of adding more stress into your lives.

If you are looking at reducing your wardrobe clutter, take a pledge
that you will not make random purchases
that you will buy only with a clear intent or purpose
that you will take stock of what's already inside your wardrobe.

Would love to hear your comments.

Nov 2, 2015

Book Review: Present - A Techie's Guide to Public Speaking

 I love public speaking. The preparation, topic selection, putting together a structure and coming up with a seamless flow of thoughts/ideas, delivering the presentation in front of an audience, taking questions - the entire process excites me.

Though I have participated in a couple of speech and debate contests at school, I wasn't naturally good at it from my childhood. I wanted to become a good speaker and have been investing time and effort over many years. Thanks to my first job at Oracle where there was an active Toastmasters club, I started to work and refine my public speaking skills. Whenever there's any presentation to be given at work either to an internal audience or to customers, I look forward to it. I also love to speak at lectures/sessions at public events and I have managed to speak at 4 such sessions so far (would love to do more!). Although I have good experience in public speaking, I still believe there are certain areas that I need to improve upon. I listen to prominent TED speakers and observe their style and presentation during my free time.

This interest towards public speaking led me to stumble upon Poornima Vijayashankar's works. I have listened to some of her talks in her Femgineer youtube channel. She is very natural in her flow of words, very confident and has a good style of coherently presenting a concept/idea. When she announced that she is looking for peer reviewers for her new book "Present: A techie's guide to public speaking" which she has co-authored with Karen Catlin, I jumped at the opportunity immediately.

Expressing and articulating your ideas clearly and to-the-point is a valuable skill in today's knowledge economy. Unfortunately, this skill doesn't get enough attention in our schools and colleges. When young talented grads enter the workforce, they find it really challenging as they lack the confidence to speak up.

After reading the book, my instant reaction was "Wish I read this book 13 years ago". The ideas and principles that Poornima and Karen have put together are very easy to understand, with interesting personal anecdotes and experiences that we can easily relate to. Right from tackling stage fright, picking the right topic, developing the outline and preparing an engaging talk, Poornima and Karen have covered it all. The exercises give enough direction and guidance to practice the principles that make you feel more confident.

The five key take-aways for me from this book are the following:

1. "You don't have to be an expert" - Keep the topic within the scope of your knowledge and experience. Set the expectations clear.
2. "Evoke an emotional response from the audience". Share personal stories, interesting and frustrating moments, humor, suspense etc. This is applicable even if the topic is a serious one.
3. Build up an audience focused proposal. Identify their persona and their motivations. List down the take-aways that would be relevant for them.
4. Leverage the power of stories. Stories make abstract ideas concrete, they are relatable and captivating.
5. Develop an outline and practice your talk before you start preparing your slides. This came as a surprise to me. I usually prepare with ideas and thoughts jotted down in an Evernote note, translate them to a rough outline in Powerpoint, nail down the flow while working on the slides and then practice a few times using the slides. The authors however present a different view though, which I now believe makes more sense. Slides should only help accent your presentation and shouldn't become a crutch.

I loved reading this book and I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in public speaking - whether you are a new or a seasoned speaker, I'm sure you'll find a lot of take-aways.

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