How best to write a book, win an argument, draw up a prenuptial agreement and make supper in 45 seconds - here is the magazine's guide to improving your essential social skills, big and small. E Jane Dickson takes advice from Edward de Bono, Nicholson Baker, John Lanchester and other experts - including a man who demonstrates how to catch a ping pong ball on the end of his nose
How to pick a winner at the races

by Patrick Robinson, owner/breeder and author of 'Horse Trader', the biography of Robert Sangster

If you go to any race meeting and they have a fairly reasonable handicap, pick one of the top four horses in the handicap: it's a statistical fact that 70 per cent of all handicaps are won by the horses carrying the four heaviest weights. Look at these four and make up your mind. If one of the four is overweight, don't back it; if another is from a stable that hasn't had a win in four weeks, don't back that either. But stick to that top four. Don't even look at the rest, and you will win many, many more times than you lose.

If you want to pick a winner in the ring, make sure your horse has a bloody great crease right down his backside, behind his quarters. This crease defines the muscle that shows he's done a lot of work uphill, so he's strong at the back and probably very fit.

Do not back anything that is sweating behind the saddle. If he's sweating on his neck in front of the saddle, it's merely because he's hot. If the horse is sweating behind the saddle - particularly if it's a filly - it probably means that she's got a touch of the collywobbles and is a bit jumpy.

Don't look at some bloody thing with a wild eye and say, "Christ, there's a high-mettled thoroughbred, I bet that'll go like the wind." That is the biggest mistake you could make. If you see a horse who's got a bit of white about his eyes and he's kind of looking backwards, have nothing whatsoever to do with him. It mean's he's fed up and probably isn't going to do his best. You're looking for a nice, bold, calm eye, and it's always better if the horse has won a couple of races in the past year. But the main thing is, the horse has got to look at you kindly.

How to behave on the Internet

by John Diamond, journalist and broadcaster

The Internet is a medium of correspondence, but - as nobody ever tells new users - it is unlike any other medium. Net messages are less measured than letters, more asynchronous than the telephone, more verbose than a telegram. Think of it as a high-speed postcard, and you're almost there.

Remember that, as in all written language, your meaning has to be conveyed in the words you use because, voiceless, you can't give them any inflection. Your readers can't see your face or hear the tone of your voice, and so there is no way of knowing whether "you old bastard" is meant fondly or insultingly. And for lack of any other evidence, Net users always assume the worst.

If you write in capital letters, you are presumed to be shouting. Don't do it. If your writing skills aren't up to conveying nuance, you can use asterisks around a word or phrase to convey the sort of emphasis you'd normally set in italics.

Salutations and valedictions are always difficult, given that the dearness, faithfulness and sincerity of posted letters are taken for granted on the Net. The best compromise is simply to write the addressee's full name - or forename if you've spoken before - at the top of a message, press "return" and start writing. At the end write your own first name or, if you expect to be addressed by both names, your first and second name. Some correspondents routinely sign off with "regards".

Some e-mail programmes allow you automatically to add a personal signature - commonly either a libertarian quotation, the sort of smirky joke that appears as graffiti above student union urinals, or a New-Age musing on the nature of life. Before you add one to your own messages, remember that not everyone receiving e-mail from you will be convinced that you read all the works of Jefferson before selecting the one which sums up your own philosophy best.

If you can, write off-line and read what you've written before sending it. Illiterate postings will look like the postings of an illiterate. And if you're sending a message to a group of people, scroll through the thread to make sure that somebody hasn't already said what you want to say.

How to get lipstick off your collar

by Suzanne Wilkinson of the Good Housekeeping Institute

The difficulty about lipstick is that you've got pigment wrapped in grease, and that makes it very hard to remove. (For the same reason, a milky coffee stain is much harder to remove than black coffee.) With lipstick, you're dealing with a heavy fat, so you will need a really efficient solvent. I would suggest a pre-treatment specialist product such as Stain Devil or Dylon.

Don't wait to see if the stain "comes out in the wash" before investing in a specialist product, because the heat of the wash, especially if you tumble dry, can "set" the stain.

It is important to treat the stain as soon as possible, but don't try and deal with it on the hoof. Water will just run off the stain, and rubbing will only spread it. Wait until you're at home with all the correct equipment. The solvent must be applied with a clean, white cloth. If you were to dab at it with a red napkin, for example, the solvent would dissolve the red pigment and make the original stain even worse.

After pre-treatment, wash with a biological detergent. Biological detergents contain enzymes such as lipase, amylase and protease. When dealing with lipstick, you want one with the "fat digester", lipase.

How to make a French pleat

The hairstylist Nicky Clarke tells you how

This look can be a timeless classic or be brought bang up to date with a more unstructured finish.

For a perfect French pleat the hair must be at least shoulder length and, ideally, have a few long layers through the front. This will give a younger-looking end result, with softness round the face.

If you are going for a classic pleat (think Grace Kelly), then it will work better the day after washing. However, if you prefer it to be softer, with loose tendrils round the front, clean hair is better.

Rough-dry hair to 50 per cent and use a styling spray, such as my Life, Thicken & Shine Styling Spray, concentrating on the roots and spritzing all over. Dry your hair with your head upside down, to encourage the roots to go in the right direction. If you have time, set the ends of the hair on rollers to help achieve a smoother finish.

When hair is dry, backcomb at the roots (this will make a good base for the grips and help to hold the style). Section off hair as this will give you greater control. Pin the front section out of the way, to do later. Divide the back in half vertically. Select one half to do first. Backcomb hair at the roots. Using a tail comb, smooth over the top layer of hair, keeping the sides flat to the head (this will avoid the style looking dated). Mist with Hold & Shine Hairspray. To ensure the pleat stays secure, use grips to pin hair in place just off-centre at the back of the head, and pin in criss-cross or tramlines first from bottom to top, then from top to bottom.

Now smooth over the other side, twisting hair up and into the coil. Pin into place from the inside of the coil by turning the pin back in on itself.

To avoid bagging at the neck, have your head leaning fractionally back. When you straighten it, the pleat will be pulled even tighter. To finish off the front, either go classic by backcombing and smoothing straight back, blending the ends into the pleat itself, or leave the front soft and loose to frame the face for a more relaxed look. For a smooth, glossy finish, mist with my Frizz Control Spray on Serum.

How to park correctly

by Roger Ison, branch manager, British School of Motoring

Look for a parking space which is about two car lengths in size, but certainly no less than one-and- a-half car lengths. If you're going forwards into the space, you'll need a bit extra.

Pull up past the parking space, parallel to the vehicle in front of the space, with a two- or three-foot gap between your car and the front vehicle. Look round, and make sure that you are clear of any following traffic. Reverse until your back bumper is level with the back bumper of the vehicle in front of the space. Steer the wheel to the left to bring the back of the car into the parking space. How much you steer the wheel, depends on how big the parking space is. The key is not to put so much steering on the car that you go into the space at a very sharp angle. Generally speaking, one-and-a-half turns of the wheels should bring you in at a 45-degree angle, which is just about right.

The point at which you begin to steer in the opposite direction depends on the vehicle's size. As a general rule, wait until your nearside door mirror is level with the back of the front vehicle.

Now you are ready to steer in the other direction. Obviously, your bonnet needs to be clear of the car in front. Once the front of your car is in the parking space, straighten up.

How to catch a ping pong ball on the end of your nose

The Great Xar, magician

Take a ping pong ball, cover it in Copydex and let it dry. Smear a dab of Copydex on to your nose.

This is the cunning part. Copydex dries invisible, the ping pong ball just looks like an ordinary ping pong ball and your nose just looks like a nose.

Throw the ball up and catch it on your nose. This takes a bit of practice, but surprisingly little skill. If the ball makes contact with your nose at all, the "Velcro" effect of the Copydex will make sure it stays there as if by magic.

How to write a book

by Edward de Bono, author of 'The Use of Lateral Thinking'

The first stage is to sit down and write random notes, one after the other, as rapidly as possible. Use a fresh sheet of paper for each new strain of thought.

The next stage is to go back, read the notes and pick out subheadings and chapters. Number the chapters and at the top of each sheet of notes, put the number of the chapter it will go in.

Put the sheets, organised into chapters, in one of those books with transparent plastic leaves.

Pick a chapter, revise your notes and sit down and write.

The main thing is to keep the style as simple as possible, without all the qualifiers and subclauses and exemptions that can clog up a textbook. You're dealing with the by-and-large rather than with the absolute. Also avoid adjectives as much as possible. The aim is not to have everything so detailed that it becomes very boring to write it all down. You want to surprise yourself as well as the reader. That is the fun of writing. When you start a sentence, you may not know how that sentence is going to end. You're after a dynamic flow rather than a series of static points. Treat it like running along a stony beach. Don't try to keep your balance on each stone, but keep your balance by thinking about the way you're going to step on to the next stone.

The key thing is the discipline not to try and make it perfect. Never reread anything. Once you start reading it over, you modify one thing and then the next thing doesn't balance and you have to adjust that, rather like trimming sideburns.

Of course you've got to have thought about the subject before. That way you write very fast. The average book should take about four days from beginning to end, but you get faster with practice. I have written 53 books, which have been translated into 20 languages. My forthcoming book, A Textbook of Wisdom - how to be wise without waiting until you're 70 years old - was written on the plane between London and Mexico.

How to drop the philosophy of Jacques Derrida into conversation

by Nick Revell, meta-textual philanderer

Forget about being subtle. If you're going to name-drop Derrida, you're either trying to get rid of whoever you're talking to, or they're a first- year A-level student whom you're trying to seduce.

Go in hard. Say something like "But what is literature?" It doesn't have to be remotely relevant to what you've been talking about. If you've got the bottle, pause after "What is literature?" you will appear psychotic but deep.

The great thing is that nobody has actually read Derrida, so all you need are catchphrases, like "Don't you think it's ironic that 'post' is the predominant prefix in the postmodernist era". If anyone asks you to define deconstruction, answer that Derrida mentions the distinction between deconstruction and deconstructionism and, again, just blank it out. If all else fails, introduce the Atacama desert; mention its arid, red soil and the fact that "arid red" is an anagram of Derrida.

If someone manages to outbluff you, your failsafe position is, of course, that Derrida has been adulterated by misunderstanding.

How to fall downstairs

by Nick Gillard, stuntman

If you should find yourself falling downstairs, you probably will not have the pre-programmed information needed to deal with the situation.

Part of your brain will go straight into panic mode. Another part will kick in, dilate your pupils, channel your hearing, eliminate unneeded information and do the best it can to protect you. Unfortunately this immediate response may not be the best thing for you in terms of actual injury. In order to protect your head, for example, it may automatically decide to sacrifice your arms. The following tips may help you lessen your injury.

Falling downstairs is generally caused by stumbling, tripping or being pushed. You don't have time to get into a "starting position". So, the moment you're on your way...

Collapse the muscles in your legs. This will stop you pitching too far forward. Try to keep your arms close to your chest, as if boxing. Try to turn your body slightly sideways; when you hit the stairs, use one of your forearms to take out the inertia, then immediately spread your arms and legs to slow your descent. At all times, keep your chin on your chest and your eyes open.

Remember, if you're going to have a shave, have a close one.

How to make cut flowers last

by Richard Felton of Felton Wills and Segar

If you want your cut flowers to last, the single most important thing you can do is to cut the stems properly.

This method goes back to my grandfather, Robert Forester Felton, court florist to King Edgar VII. Like me, he was concerned that people should find flowers worth buying.

Do not, I repeat, not, cut flowers with scissors or any kind of secateur. The action of the blades closes the stem; it shuts down the very system by which the flowers hope to drink. This is particularly important when you are dealing with woody-stemmed flowers such as roses.

Take a good, sharp penknife, and just scrape the stem with the knife. The action should be like peeling potatoes, not sawing a tree trunk. Cut up and through the stem diagonally, showing about an inch-and-a-half of the white pith. It is this spongy pith that absorbs the water up the stems, so you want to expose a nice long stretch of it.

If you are going to use that green spongy stuff for formal arangements, then it is even more vital that you cut your flowers properly. Oasis is no real friend of the flower. Imagine trying to drink a pint of bitter with a sponge stuck in the top of the glass and you will have some idea how the flower feels.

If you really don't have time to cut each individual stem, then bashing the ends is better than nothing.

Cut flowers drink as much in the first 24 hours as they do in the rest of their life in the water. If you can, refresh the flowers in a nice deep bucket of water for about an hour before arranging them in vases - and, this is vital, top the vase up next morning.

Effervescence is good for the human being and it's just as good for flowers. If you can, position the vase beneath a running tap to get lots of oxygen into the water. Strip off any leaves beneath the water level before they begin to rot and stagnate. Stagnant water is a killer.

With the proper care, most cut flowers should remain fresh for at least two weeks. Not so long ago, funeral wreaths made up the bulk of the British florist trade. There is no doubt that as a nation we are now sending more and more flowers to living people. All the more reason to make them last.

How to protect yourself with a prenuptial agreement

Peter Vaines, who he?

A prenuptial agreement will usually be made on the insistence of one side "to avoid misunderstandings at a later date". Really, it's just a means of protection if things should go wrong. One partner may have pots of money and be anxious that the motives of the other have been confused by the prospect of wealth. A prenuptial agreement, setting out how their property will be divided in the event of divorce, can provide some reassurance. That, at least, is the theory.

Marriage tends to interfere with property rights and you never know what may be agreed in the general carve-up of a divorce. Where children from a previous marriage are involved, you may want to have a prenuptial agreement to make sure that your money goes to your children, and not to the children of your new spouse.

An alternative to a prenuptial agreement is a prenuptial settlement. Before the marriage, one party puts some of their assets into a trust, allowing only the income (not the capital) to be paid to the spouse. This is a plan much favoured by parents of wealthy children who want to protect their son or daughter from gold-digging suitors. Unfortunately, it does little to promote happy family relations and can end up doing more harm than good.

How to hang paintings

by Anthony Wishaw, chief hanger, Royal Academy summer exhibition

Paintings need space to breathe, but you can hang a big painting in a small room as long as there isn't furniture in the way. A good white matt acrylic is generally the best background for pictures in a domestic setting. Ideally, you want the centre of the painting to be at eye-height.

When hanging paintings in a group, changes of scale can be exciting, as can a mix of abstract and figurative paintings, but it's better if the "languages" are roughly the same. The shape the paintings make on the wall should look considered. Groupings needn't be strictly symmetrical, but in that case the pictures in the group should follow either a horizontal or a vertical plan. Towers of paintings can look particularly good, but the paintings need to be of similar size. And the spaces between the pictures should not be the same size as the paintings themselves, or you will find yourself looking at the gaps.

Never hang watercolours in direct sunlight, or they will fade. Nor should they be hung in a steamy or damp bathroom. Living rooms with open-plan kitchens are not suitable for hanging oil paintings as cooking fumes and grease can damage the surface. Also, if you are hanging a painting above a sofa, be sure that the backs of people's heads are not going to rub the surface. Floodlights coming from above the painting are better than spotlights trained directly on to the canvas.

Paintings can be attached to walls with chains or picture cord, but heavy- duty nylon fishing line is invisible. Particularly heavy paintings can rest on a flat piece of wood painted the same colour as the wall. Don't trust your eye to tell you that you've got things straight. Always use a spirit level.

How to win an argument

The 10 key elements that make up the great power argument, by Gerry Spence

1. Prepare. Preparation is the key. Understand all the facets of your argument, and your opponent's.

2. Empower yourself. Everyone is capable of making the winning argument. Self-belief is utterly convincing.

3. Relate your argument in the form of a story. Traditionally, we are storytellers and listeners. Use a story format to express your ideas.

4. Tell the truth. Establish your credibility from the start. With credibility comes trust.

5. State objectives clearly. If you want money, ask for it. Don't let others misinterpret your requests.

6. Avoid sarcasm, scorn and ridicule. Use humour cautiously. Give respect to your opponent. Nobody admires the scoffer, the cynic, the mocker. Humour, when properly used, can be devastating, but beware! Badly used, it can backfire catastrophically.

7. Logic is power. If you have logic on your side, ride it for all it's worth. It may not always be fun, but it is powerful.

8. Act to win. Don't defend when you can attack. Take the initiative. Take control.

9. Admit the weaknesses of your argument at the beginning. You can expose your weak points better than your opponent, who will expose them in the darkest possible way.

10. Understand your power and your argument. With proper understanding you give yourself permission to win. But remember, arrogance, insolence and stupidity are close relatives.

'How to Argue and Win Every Time' is published by Sidgwick & Jackson on 10 May, price pounds 16.99

How to make gazpacho in 45 seconds

John Lanchaster, author of 'The Debt to Pleasure', published by Picador, price pounds 15.99

This is a secret family recipe handed down through generations. Actually it was only handed down through one generation: I stole it from my mother. It's for those occasions when you have too many people to dinner/need to add an extra course at the last minute/have completely forgotten that people are coming. It takes between 45 and 90 seconds to make, depending on how complicated you want to make it.

First chop some ham. I like plain York ham, the kind that comes in packets, but I suppose you can do some kind of cutting-edge thing with posh foreign ham if you like it. You want about a tablespoonful of chopped ham per person, placed in a little mound at the bottom of the dish.

Chop some onions and peppers very finely; two colours of pepper if you're feeling flash. In truth, the peppers don't add much to this dish, so you can leave them out if you want to. Divide the onions and peppers between your dishes and pour some tomato juice over the top. One litre of tomato juice will comfortably do six to eight people. The slightly posher kind of juice that you get in a jar is best, but a carton of el cheapo will do. Add a pinch of chilli and swirl some cream on the top in an artistic spiral.

If anyone asks you how this soup is made, it is essential to look modest and say "Oh, it's a complete dawdle. The only boring bit is peeling and skinning the tomatoes."

How to make chocolate sauce

Nicholson Baker

Take one ingot of unsweetened chocolate, remove the paper, and drop it into a tiny saucepan settled over an adjustable heat source. Then unfold one end of a brand-new silver bar of unsalted butter and cut a chunk off roughly comparable to the piece of chocolate, which has by this time begun to smear slightly. (An old stick of butter has too much refrigerator flavour in its exposed end.) The butter will melt faster than the chocolate. Entertain yourself by breaking the ingot of chocolate into its two halves and pushing the halves and the subsiding chunk of butter around with the tip of the butter knife. Then abandon the butter knife and switch to a spoon. When the unmelted chocolate is no more than a small, soft shape difficult to locate in the larger veloute, shake some drifts of confectioners' sugar into the liquid. You're aiming for a bittersweet taste, a taste quite a bit less sweet than the ice cream - so sprinkle accordingly. But you'll find that a surprising amount of sugar is necessary. Stir idly. If the mixture becomes thick and paste-like, add another three-eighth-inch sliver of butter; to your relief, all will effortlessly reliquefy. Avoid bubbling or burning the mixture, which can now be called sauce. Turn off the heat, or turn it down so low that you don't have to worry about it. Spoon out some premium plain vanilla ice-cream. Lately this has become hard to find - crowded out by low-fat premiums and Fragonard flavours. But you want the very best vanilla ice-cream available in your area; you have to have that high butterfat content for it to be compatible with the chocolate sauce. Spoon the sauce over the ice-cream. It will harden. This is what you have been working for. Once cooled, it will make a nice sound when you tap it with a spoon. If you want more tappable chocolate sauce, and you have already covered your scoop or scoops of ice-cream with a complete trelliswork, simply turn over one of the scoops and dribble more over the exposed underside. Eat with haste, because premium vanilla ice-cream melts fast. Refrigerate the unused sauce right in the original saucepan, covered with tinfoil, with the spoon resting in it; that way, when you put it back on to the heat source, you'll be able to brandish the whole solidified disk of chocolate merely by lifting the spoon. It looks like a metal detector.

1991 Nicholson Baker. Extracted from 'The Size of Thoughts', published by Chatto & Windus, at pounds 16.99

How to defend your privacy

Simon Davies, author of Big Brother: Britain's Web of Surveillance and The New Technological Order, Pan Books

There may not be much privacy in modern Britain, but there's no reason why you shouldn't have enormous fun defending the little that's left.

Inform all telephone canvassers that you will willingly talk to them at the rate of pounds 20 per hour.

Mark all unwanted junk mail "return to sender" and attach a note that you wish to be removed from the company's list. If they continue to send you unsolicited mail, repeat the process, this time writing the note on something more noticeable (eg a house brick). You can also send lots and lots of your own junk mail to these companies with pleasing results.

Closed Circuit TV operators become irrational if you stand directly underneath their cameras, pointing at the lens and taking measurements of surrounding objects.

When entering into any written agreement, add the following clause: "This information may not be transmitted to any third party".

If you suspect that your phone is being bugged, don't pay your next phone bill. If your conversations are that important, the buggers will pay it for you.

How to drape a sari

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You will need a long petticoat, in either cotton, satin or silk, and a matching top. The top must be fitted to the body, and can have long, short or no sleeves (according to taste); it must expose the midriff (this will be covered later by the sari). [cut - For a more contemporary edge, a boob tube, halter-neck or bustier will work equally well.] These two pieces are the foundation garments.

A sari is normally six yards long, with a width of 54 inches. One end is heavily decorated; the other is plain. The plain end is for "commencement", and the ornate end - traditionally known as "Pallav" - flows decoratively down the back of the wearer.

After putting on the foundation garments, open up the entire sari. Starting on the right-hand side of the waist, tuck the plain end of the fabric two inches into your petticoat from above, and continue around the back of your body to the left, ruching a little as you go, until you get back to where you started. This should use up about one-and-a-half yards of the sari. Take the first yard of the remaining fabric, and fold it neatly into five or six even pleats, ending with the fabric flowing towards the left, then tuck this large pleat into the front of your petticoat, pushing it down inside if you are shorter than the width of the sari.

The remaining fabric is for display. Drape it around the back of your waist to your right hand side, then over your chest and left shoulder, so that the end of the sari, the printed or embroidered Pallav, flows freely down your back.

Each community wears the sari in a slightly different way. This style is based on the most popular Hindu method, used by 90 per cent of Indian sari wearers.

With many thanks to Jay Thaker at Zee TV, and Helen Brodie, Zee TV Supermodel of 1996.

Zee TV is the Asian cable and satellite television network serving South Asian communities in the UK and Europe. It has 150 million viewers worldwide

How to look slimmer instantly

Karen King, fitness instructor

Your parents probably used to tell you to "Stand up straight! stomach in, shoulders back." In fact, that old sergeant major thing is completely the wrong way to stand. All it does is arch your lower back and nip your shoulders together, which is uncomfortable and ungainly. And if you've ever tried pulling your stomach in as hard as you can, you'll find you can't hold it for long anyway.

If you follow the natural line of the spine and use the muscles in your stomach and bottom to pull in instead, you'll look better instantly.

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, so that you're comfortable to start with. Relax your shoulders, but don't drop them or force them down, and lift your ribcage so that your spine follows its natural curve. Tighten your lower tummy muscles, and you will find that your pelvis comes forward slightly with no arching whatsoever of your lower back. Tighten the tummy muscles just by holding them in; you don't want to be straining, you want to breathe naturally and control the movement through the muscles in your tummy and bottom. If you're holding your breath, you're not using the muscles.

This isn't a work-out exercise. You can do it while you're walking around. The more you do it, the more you get control of your tummy muscles. I'm not saying you'll instantly have a tight abdominal wall, but at least you will look as if you do.