Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to make self-development a habit?

This is a copy of the script that I used to deliver a workshop on "How to make Self-Development a habit?"


It was 5 o’clock in the morning. The alarm clock went off. “Should I wake up from the bed … or not?” This is the decision that I had to make every week on Friday mornings … for nearly 3 years in a row. However, every single time, I made the decision to wake up from bed… because, I had to attend a Toastmasters meeting on Friday mornings at 7 o’clock.

It was the year 2007. I was in USA then. Those were the days, when I was finding it difficult to speak in English. When someone asks me a simple question such as “Hey Saro! How was your weekend?” I’ll be frozen as if I was struck by lightning. I’ll smile… say “Good” and immediately walk away from that person.  I was afraid whether that person will ask me additional questions. I had about 10 years of working experience, then… but I still was a Software Engineer. I never grew beyond a Technical role, because of my poor communication skills.

Today, if someone asks me “How was your weekend?”… I’ll say “Wow… I had a fantastic time during the weekend… You know what… we went to a conference in Bangalore and had an amazing time there. I don’t even know how the two days went”. Today, I’m a Director Technology in a MNC. I got 3 promotions in the last 4 years. That transformation was made possible through my continuous self-development.

All of you know that I have been a very ACTIVE toastmaster for the last 7 years. How did I create time for writing my speeches? How did I learn to balance between family, work and Toastmasters? How did I make self-development a habit?

In this article, I’m going to share with you some techniques that I learned & followed to make Self-Development as a habit.

Let me define what Self-Development is. Self-Development isn’t just about just developing your communication skills. You may be having the goal of reducing weight and becoming fit; you may be having the goal of completing your PMP or Java Certification; you may be having a goal of doing part-time MBA – anything that you do to improve yourself … anything that you do to prepare yourself to perform things faster/better comes under self-development.

You might’ve heard about the story of the wood cutter who takes regular breaks to sharpen his saw. The wood cutter who sharpens the saw regularly will be able to cut more trees than the wood cutter who works hard, but doesn’t sharpen the saw. Self-development is improving yourself… making YOU a BETTER YOU!

This article describes 5 techniques that you can use to make Self-Development a Habit.

1. Make it URGENT

"I don't have the time to write my next speech!"

When you ask someone "It has been months since you gave a speech in our club meetings. What happened?" Immediately they’ll say “I don’t have time”.

Everyone on this planet has the same 24 hours in the day. The question is: What do you choose to do with yours? All of the self-help books tell the same thing and the chances are, you might've already tried some of those things and given up already!

Get up early in the morning
Maintain a to-do list
Time each and every activity
Review your time usage regularly
Yada ... Yada... Yada...

I want to challenge the toastmasters who say ... "I don't have time to attend the club meetings... or I don't have time to write a speech script". You have the time with you. You just have not PRIORITIZED toastmasters in your life. You just have not PRIORITIZED your need for becoming a better speaker. In your packed day-to-day life, if your dear ones get sick... you manage to find time to take them to a hospital; if a relative/friend drops-in to your home and spends an hour or two, you are able to engage them; if your vehicle or home appliance breaks down and needs a repair, you are able to find time to take it for service; if you get some illness and the doctor advices you to come for weekly check-ups, you manage to find time to go to hospital. How are you able to find time to do these activities?

The next time you say "I don't have time for doing this... or doing that", think whether you have really PRIORITIZED that activity in your life.

You may be interested in developing a daily exercise routine – however you would continue to postpone it until it becomes Important & Urgent. One fine day, your doctor is going to say “You’ve high cholesterol or you have high diabetes” and you will automatically get up early in the morning to do exercise.

To start with, allocate just 15 minutes every day to spend on self-development – may be reading books, doing a quick exercise, or reading newspaper. If make an activity URGENT, you’ll naturally find ways to schedule it in your day to day, life.

2. Change Small, Change Often

“Change Small, Change Often” says, Craig Valentine, the World Champion of Public Speaking.

What do we do when we set self-development as a goal? Let us take for example, a simple habit of exercising every day. The moment we want to develop a habit like exercising, we tend to overdo it. We’ll get up early at 4.30 in the morning to do Yoga. Then you’ll go to gym for another 2 hours. You’ll do this for a week and give up because it is practically unsustainable. Who in the world would find 2 hours every day for exercising – unless your full time job is to maintain your body like athletes.

In the year 2001, I read the book “My experiments with Truth”, by Mahatma Gandhi. Immediately, I got inspired and wanted to become a pure vegetarian like Gandhi. However, I didn’t become a “pure vegetarian”, the next day. At first I stopped eating meat – I continued to have eggs & sea food. It went on for a year or so. Then I stopped eating eggs and sea food… but, I continued to have milk and other dairy products. Later, I stopped eating Pizzas, I stopped eating cake, I stopped eating curd and ice creams - I became a pure vegetarian (aka Vegan). It took me about 5 years to transition from a non-vegetarian to a pure-vegetarian. If I had tried to stop eating meat, eggs and Pizzas on day one, I would’ve soon given up my quest to become a Pure Vegetarian.

Whatever you want to achieve in life, try to “change small, but change often”. This will help you to develop and sustain a new habit.

3. Make it Public

Whenever you want to develop a habit, make a public disclosure. It will help your environment and friends/family members to understand your goals. You won’t believe how much support you would get from them.

In the year 2005, I wanted to reduce my weight. I shared my New Year resolution with my wife. I told her that I want to go for a brisk walk every day in the morning. She religiously got up at 5.30 in the morning, woke me up for my morning walk and she again went back to sleep. I'm not sure if she did that to help me to achieve my goal or she wanted to sleep comfortably in the bed. The reminder system helped me to accomplish my goals and make self-development a habit.

Find out mechanisms to make a public disclosure of your habit, telling your family/friends, putting it as a backdrop in your monitor, pasting posters at home/workplace, writing blogs, updating your status message in Skype/Facebook etc.,

A good friend of mine introduced me to Toastmasters because I had told everyone that I wanted to improve my communication skills. Had I not made a public disclosure of my self-development needs, I wouldn’t have ended up in Toastmasters.

4. Substitute Bad Habits with Good ones

Most of us here are addicted to bad habits. It all would have started with just one bad habit. Take for example - you may be having a habit of "watching TV in the night". When you spend more time watching TV in the night, you’ll go to bed very late. You won't be able to get up early in the morning. You won't have time for a regular exercise. You'll start to gain more weight and become obese over a period of time. You’ll go to work late and since you’ve gone to office late, you may end staying late in the night to complete your work.

Having spent a lot of time at work, whatever little time you get over the weekends will be spent in relaxing - mostly by watching television, or movies. You will not find time to read good books. You'll start to assimilate hundreds of other bad habits.

I was no different from you folks until 7 years back. But, I found that people who lead a balanced life were able to excel in their career as well as on personal front. I decided to bring-in a change into my life.

The first thing that I did is to come home 1 hour early from work. Instead of spending 12 - 14 hours at work, I started to spend just 8 hours. I did a better time management during the day, assigned proper priority to tasks and avoided all the unwanted activities. This helped me to complete the work in time. Having come early from work, I wanted to spend that time usefully. Instead of dining outside, I started to prepare my food every day at home. I had more time left out after I was done with the cooking. So, I started to go to the fitness center. With a balanced diet and regular exercise, I became more fresh & active. I could do more things in less time. I realized that I had more time left out in a day.

For quite some time, I had a passion to do a management degree. I enrolled for a part time MBA program. My whole world changed after that. In my classes and during various networking events, I got opportunities to meet new people from different industries. But I found it hard to initiate or participate in conversations. I hardly had any topics in common, to discuss with them. I started to keep track of the current events, tech-industry, economy, and stock market. This gave me a wealth of knowledge to participate in any conversation with strangers.

Bringing a change into your life isn't very easy. Especially, the habits that were cultivated for a long time, take a long time to get rid-off. What happens when you go to the battle field with a wooden stick, and your enemy has a machine gun in hand? The mechanism that you use to bring in a change has to be much more powerful and persistent.

Stephen Covey, the author of the famous book "Seven habits of highly effective people" says "substituting a bad habit with a good habit" is an easy way to get rid of bad habits.

Many a times New Year Resolutions fail because “People try to desperately RUN AWAY from their bad behaviors”. Instead of RUNNING AWAY from something, focus on RUNNING TOWARDS something. The only time RUNNING AWAY FROM SOMETHING works is when you are chased by a hungry dog.

When you try hard to UNLEARN your bad habits, you focus too much on the BAD than focusing on the GOOD. For example, when delivering a speech, the more you focus on getting rid of nervousness, the more nervous you become. Instead, you should focus on how you would feel if you deliver the speech successfully.

Substitute your bad habits with good ones.


Fellow toastmasters, life is too short to be wasted in doing things that are mundane. The story that you want to tell the word tomorrow, is getting created today. If you continue to do what you do, you’ll continue to get what you get. You cannot be an extraordinary person by just doing ordinary things like everyone else.

I'm sure you have a passion to follow in your life - may be becoming a better speaker, doing exercise, or starting your own company. From President Obama ... to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam... all of them have the same 24 hours. If you want your dreams to come true, make self-development a habit.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

10 things that I liked about Reveberation 2013, District 82 Conference

Reverberation 2013… it was really a BIG BANG. When I ponder about Reverberation 2013, one thing that comes to my mind is the passion and dedication of the volunteers from Bangalore who had put together a fantabulous show.
District conferences always provide an excellent opportunity for Toastmasters from various clubs and divisions to connect, communicate and cross-pollinate. Reverberation 2013 wasn’t an exception. I felt as if I had gone to a totally new world for 2 days – a world filled with fun, education and togetherness.
Here is the list of top 10 things that I liked the most about Reverberation 2013:
  1. TM Sujith showed up at the Bangalore railway station at 4.30 am in the morning with a charming smile on his face to pickup the delegates. I was amazed by his dedication and passion to serve fellow Toastmasters. 
  2. The proximity of the conference venue to the hotels. We paid just Rs. 35 to catch an auto to reach the conference venue from the hotel. The hotels were neat/clean and within the budget.
  3. The "grand" inaugural / opening ceremony. The simplicity, diversity and the elegance was unmatchable. Especially, I liked the Panchatantra group’s performance, very much. 
  4. The educational value – many Toastmasters come to the conference to gain knowledge. If attending club meetings is like taking a bus to reach your destination, attending a conference is like taking a jet to reach your destination. In Reverberation 2013, the organizers maximized the educational value by arranging parallel educational sessions and by lining up high profile speakers/trainers.
  5. Smooth check-in procedure at the Registration desk in the conference venue. One notable thing is that volunteers were there at the registration desk almost throughout the day on both the days
  6. Quality of the food was unbeatable. In addition, there was a wide array of food choices for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. 
  7. The space for networking around the meeting halls (there was enough place for people to hang around in groups and take pictures/chat) - TATA Auditorium venue was ideal for networking.
  8. Being the Chief Judge, I want to highlight the remarkable job done by Sunny & his team for the spectacular coordination and meticulous planning in the last one month for the contests. During the contests, whenever I reached out to Pearl Fernandes, Natasha, Mala Mary Martina, Kavya or Ajay for help... they offered help immediately. 
  9. The quality of our contestants has exponentially grown this year - both humorous and evaluations contests. The contestants gave a tough fight and made the job very tough for the judges 
  10. Last, but not the least… a very young team managed to pull off a huge conference like Reverberations 2013. Simply... unbelievable. This is a DREAM conference team.

I will cherish the memories of Reverberations 2013, forever.

7 ways to prepare for Table Topics Contests

"It usually takes me more than 3 weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech" said Mark Twain, the famous author. It is really true. Fluency in English alone is not enough for you to become a great impromptu speaker. When you get a topic during contests and if you don’t know what to speak, your brain will start spinning rigorously like an empty grinder... making a lot of noise without any useful output. You should feed the grinder with something to reduce the noise and to get useful output. How do you go about feeding the empty grinder? This article outlines some simple techniques that you can use to prepare for Table Topics contests.

(Also read: 9 ways to prepare for Table Topics & Impromptu Speaking)

1) Create a personal stories catalog – I’ve seen many people getting into the habit of writing blogs to document their life events. If you don't like to write and share your thoughts publicly through blogs, you can even begin the habit of writing diary. This will also help you to document your important moments & experiences which will eventually help you in creating stories from your own personal life. Diary will become your personal stories catalog.

2) Prepare for standard topics - Most of the table topics are around common subjects such as success, failure, most memorable event, greatest achievement, most happiest moment, leadership, hardwork, friendship, forgiving, happiness, sadness, goals, vacation, professional life, career, family, kids, education, determination. If you can prepare a short paragraph with some personal anecdotes on each of these subjects, you can easily talk about them in your speeches.

3) Read newspapers - Reading newspapers will help you to stay current with the day to day events that are happening in the country/world. Staying on top of current events will help you to relate to the audience and connect with them quickly. For ex., if you get a topic such as "Value of life in India", you can immediately relate back to the recent fire accidents happening in trains/buses because of not following norms.

4) Offline practice using Quotes – Most of the times, contest topics are quotes. So, take a printout of some 50 or 100 quotes from Internet. Cut the paper into smaller chits - each chit with one quote. Fold them, shuffle them and put them in a bowl. Now, take 1 chit from the bowl, open it and start talking about it for 2 minutes. Record what you speak. Then, play back and see how you could've handled the topic better. Be your own evaluator and write your "strengths" & "areas for improvement". Redo speaking on the same topic again, if you want to. Record it again and listen to it. Whenever you find time during the day or weekend, do this exercise. I have done this during my early days of Toastmastering and it has helped me to think instantly and talk on any subject. You can even play Table Topics ( games with your friends.

5) Treat it like a “mini” speech: Table Topics should also have a clear introduction, body and a memorable conclusion. You can use all the techniques that you normally use in the prepared speech for handling Table Topics – eye contact, vocal variety, structured thoughts, transitions, stories etc., Always end your Table Topic with a memorable or strong conclusion.

6) Tell a Story, don’t give a gyan – If you are a novice Table Topics speaker, you’ll start giving a gyan about the topic. For ex., if you get a topic such as “You booze, You cruise, You loose”… you can go on & on to talk about the effects of drinking liquor and driving. On the contrary, you can tell a story (even a fictions one) to convey the message. Personal incidents and stories help you to sustain the flow during Table Topics.

7) Volunteer for Table Topics - You cannot learn swimming by standing on the shore - you'll have to jump into the water to learn swimming. Similarly, you can sharpen your impromptu speaking skill by constantly participating in Table Topics sessions. Whenever the Table Topics master asks for a "Volunteer" to speak, raise your hand immediately without a second thought.
If you practice the suggestions given above, Table Topics contest will no more be a Terror Topics contest for you. Happy contesting.

Beyond the Speech Contest Rule Book

Hurrah! It is contest season, again. This is the time of the year when clubs, divisions and districts prepare their members to organize speech contests. Speech Contest rule book gives a broad framework to prepare for contests. This article provides some information which is not covered by the Speech Contest rule book and may help Toastmasters who are planning to organize contests.

Also read: 10 things that you should not do in Speech Contests

1. There is nothing Taboo

Sex, Religion & Politics are considered as Taboo in most of our clubs in District 82. However, some judges do not realize that they aren’t considered as Taboo in the context of speech contests. Technically, you cannot disqualify a person for touching upon such Taboo topics during the contest speech. But, you can definitely reduce the points for the speaker – if you think that the speaker used vulgar content which was not appropriate to the audience. Judging form has a section called “Appropriateness to Speech Purpose & Audience”. You can allocate lower scores to the speaker under that category.

2. Originality of the script

Speech contest rulebook says that the speeches should be substantially original – which means 25% or less of the speech can be from external sources. How do you go about calculating whether the speech script has exactly 25% or less from external sources? If the speaker has the written speech script handy, you can calculate it easily. In the absence of a written speech script, you can go by the time duration of the speech that is from external sources. As always, judges can jointly decide whether the speaker was within the 25% limit or not and give an opportunity to the speaker to express/substantiate his views.

3. Too much of drama isn’t great delivery

“Will the content of the speech appeal to a general audience? Will the speech delivery make ordinary people to enjoy the speaker’s performance”? When you carefully watch the videos of World Champion of Public Speaking contests, you’ll realize that the winning speeches would make an impact NOT only on Toastmasters but also on the average Joe. As judges, we shouldn’t get carried over when speeches are overdramatic and shouldn’t confuse them with great delivery.

4. 30 seconds grace time isn’t for audio or light failure

There is a common perception that speakers should be given an extra 30 seconds during a power failure. However, the speech contest rule book says “In the event of technical failure of the signal or timing equipment, a speaker is allowed 30 seconds extra overtime before being disqualified”. A humorous contest speaker even made fun of this statement, “if there is a timing equipment failure, how would you time the extra 30 seconds”. Well, the extra 30 seconds is used for switching from one timing device to another. The contest organizers are expected to give two timing devices (such as stopwatch) to the timers and they are available with the timers, handy.

Also read: 11 mistakes to avoid in Humorous Speech Contests

If you want to pick the right contestant as the winner, you need to have the right judges. Right judges are the ones who are trained and knowledgeable on the Speech Contest Judging rules. Together, let us pick the BEST contestant as winner, to represent District 82.