An Engineer of Words


2007 WCPSThis August, 34-year-old Vikas Jhingran, a graduate student in the Ocean and Mechanical Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became the first Asian to win the World Championship of Public Speaking, an annual International Toastmasters event known to insiders of the sport as the “Olympics of Public Speaking.”

Lots of stereotypes have been broken with this success of this engineer who hails from Moradabad in North India. “I make all kinds of mistakes; my grammar is pretty bad,” says Jhingran modestly. However, communicating and connecting with an audience is a skill that goes well beyond such minutiae.

What makes this victory even more remarkable is that the slightly built Jhingran had never participated in a single speech competition in India. “No elocutions, no debates, none of that,” he says with a quiet smile.

For Jhingran, the challenge was to come up with a novel topic and present it to the international audience in a creative way. His winning seven-minute speech, “The Swami’s Question,” was about a moment of self-discovery which eventually brought him to MIT.

“Vikas’s speech took us to the back alleys of Kolkata and painted vivid imagesof his worried mom taking him to the Swami to get guidance on how to succeed in life despite bad grades,” says Punita Singh, a Distinguished Toastmaster from India.

Jhingran has been part of the MIT Toastmasters club for four years. He is a passionate advocate for including communications courses in the engineering curriculum. In 2006 and 2007, he taught a short course at MIT called the “The Charismatic Speaker.”

One of Jhingran’s three speeches for this championship dwelt on the topic of arranged marriage. In the endearing speech titled “Perfect,” he spoke of a mental tussle to set aside misgivings and niggling doubts to make his marriage a wonderful relationship.

Jhingran’s wife, Anjali Gautam, a software engineer and amateur painter, accompanied him to Phoenix. As he spoke, she could sense the transformation in the audience. “They were laughing at almost every sentence,” she recalls. “That made me more nervous, as his speech time was very tight and there was not much room for additional laughs.” By the time Jhingran was done, however, Anjali sensed victory.

J. Kim Vandiver, Jhingran’s research advisor at MIT, has total faith in his doctoral student’s superior communication skills. “He has one final presentation to give here and that is his dissertation defense,” Vandiver says, “which I am sure he will do well.”

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