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An MIT doctoral candidate in mechanical and ocean engineering from India has won first place in the Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking with a speech about finding himself through meditation - and about getting into MIT, the graduate school of his dreams.
Vikas Jhingran, 34, presented "The Swami's Question" to an audience of 2,000 at the Marriott Desert Ridge Resort in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 18th.
He compared the contest to a rock concert, with its 30-foot wide stage, two huge TV screens, audience in formal attire, and National Public Radio interviews of the contestants.
"It's a big deal - two thousand people in a huge ballroom, most of them in formals. The energy was fantastic!" he said.
Toastmasters, which operates public speaking clubs throughout the world, sponsors the annual contest, known to insiders as the "Olympics of public speaking." This year's competition featured 10 finalists, each of whom presented a seven-minute original speech to a panel of judges.
Contestants were judged on content, speech organization, voice quality, gestures and delivery.
Jhingran used only one prop - the envelope from MIT that was going to change his life. He held it up as he began his speech, asking the audience the question he had asked himself: Would the letter begin with "Congratulations" or "You've got to be kidding"?
Jhingran had no idea he'd won the Toastmasters trophy until the announcement was made, he said.
"I got the sense that my speech went well and was very well received. I really connected with the audience. The time just flew by!" he said.
Jhingran wrote and prepared "The Swami" in five weeks, and he was still making small changes right up to the night before the finals, he said.
A Toastmasters member for the past four years, Jhingran knew to practice persistently and yet avoid too much tweaking before the championship, he said.
"Major changes stopped three days before the event so that I had time to absorb the speech. In my experience, you have to know it so well that you can recite it in the middle of the night. At this level, the performance has to be almost flawless," he said.
Like any star, a championship public speaker thrives with that audience connection Jhingran felt during his performance and with plenty of support behind the scenes.
Jhingran's wife was with him at the Phoenix event, and people at MIT and in local Toastmasters clubs supported his championship journey with their encouragement, ideas, comments and critiques, he said.
He had only one regret about his Toastmasters championship journey.
When he finished "The Swami's Question" to eager applause, his wife was sure he had done well enough to win, Jhingran recalled. "She kept asking me to think about my acceptance speech. I wish I had listened to her," he said.
As world champion, Jhingran may not compete again in the contest.
A native of Morabadad, India, Jhingran is a specialist in offshore drilling and oil and gas production; he came to MIT in 2004. Since then, he has been steadily involved with leadership and communication programs, and he is an advocate of establishing communications courses as part of the MIT engineering curriculum.
Jhingran has served co-president of the Sloan Leadership Club; he co-chaired the 2006 Sloan Leadership Conference, and he taught an IAP course, "The Charismatic Speaker" in 2006 and 2007.