Profile: Answering the Swami's Question
Profile: Answering the Swami's Question

 Meet Toastmasters’ 2007 World Champion
of Public Speaking: Vikas Jhingran.

 By Julie Bawden Davis

Caption: Vikas Jhingran with his World
Championship of Public Speaking trophy.

Ask 2007 World Champion of Public Speaking Vikas Jhingran about developing and delivering an award-winning speech, and he’ll tell you to simply look inside yourself and follow your passion.

“There’s really no rocket science involved. It’s all about being true to yourself, tapping into your strengths and working hard,” says Jhingran, 34, a native of Morabadad (a suburb of Calcutta), India. His award- winning speech, “The Swami’s Question,” combined humor with a personal tale of being a not-so- motivated student in India. His parents took him to the village wise man, or swami, to motivate him to get his grades up, and the swami asked him to answer the question: “Who am I?” Jhingran did, his grades improved, and he eventually was admitted to the graduate school of his dreams, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is currently a doctoral candidate in Ocean Engineering.

His speech turned the swami’s question around and asked the contest audience to answer that question for themselves. Jhingran explained, “Our lives are often so busy, we don’t take time to know ourselves – our goals, our dreams, our weaknesses or strengths... This is the story of how excellence is in all of us, if we just stop and listen to ourselves every day so that we align our actions outside with who we are inside.”

A Toastmaster since October 2002, Jhingran completed his first 10 speeches within eight months, and entered speech contests soon after joining.

“I didn’t do very well in the competitions early on, but I learned from every one of them, which helped me improve and reach the championship level,” he says. He is a member of the Humor and Drama Club and Toastmasters at MIT, which both meet on campus. “Entering as many competitions as possible is the best way to improve your speaking skills and gives you a vehicle for practicing the same speech until it’s the best it can be.”

Jhingran grew up in a country where public speaking is not encouraged in the educational system. Soon after coming to the United States for a graduate degree at Texas A&M University, however, he learned how beneficial speaking up for yourself can be.

“For eight years I worked for a company in Houston that designed oil rigs, and while I liked the job, I didn’t like the fact that when presentation time came around, the work of junior engineers like myself was presented by individuals who were better at public speaking,” says Jhingran. “When I asked if I could make the presentation about my own work, I was told that I needed better speaking skills.”

Jhingran started his journey to world class public speaking with a three-month course at the Dale Carnegie Foundation. While the experience taught him about speaking and leadership skills, the best part was hearing about Toastmasters.

“Vikas joined Toastmasters as soon as he heard about it and began giving the organization his best effort,” says his wife, Anjali Jhingran, who is a member of the Arthur D. Little Club in Cambridge. “Vikas is very passionate and driven about what he does, and he was no different with Toastmasters,” she says.

By the time Jhingran made the decision to pursue the world championship title, he had won a wide variety of regional and district speeches. But he still felt that he had a lot to learn.

“I picked up some very important lessons as I prepared for the championship contest,” says Jhingran. “For instance, I discovered that the process of getting and giving feedback is highly underrated, but very critical to the speech crafting process. Toastmasters teaches you to spot your weaknesses and ask for specific feedback and then maximize that feedback by identifying what will work for you and applying it.” 

                    “My hope is that my winning will encourage people who
                    are shy or have an accent to realize that they can do it, too.”

Perhaps one of the most critical lessons Jhingran learned while preparing his speech is the importance of staying true to his own speaking style.

“Many speakers never really spend the time to understand what their speaking style is, and as a result they don’t understand what their strengths and weaknesses are,” he says. “There are many ways to get to the top. My question is, What is your way? An effective speech has to be written to your strengths. For instance, for someone like me, the strength is in the writing and the content of the speech, not so much in the dramatics and moving around the stage.”

When you know your strengths as a speaker and the best style for you, you are comfortable enough to establish a connection with the audience, which is your most important task, Jhingran says.

“A good speaker uses words and gestures to establish an emotional connection with the audience,” says Jhingran. “Being able to successfully transport the audience to that emotional point makes the difference between winning or losing.”

Jhingran has found that one key to making an emotional connection with the audience is leading them from a very funny moment to a very profound one, which is a technique he mastered when he spoke about visiting his village swami in India and learning to meditate, followed by asking the audience to be introspective and answer the swami’s question, “Who are you?”

“Rather than instruct the audience about what to do, I wanted to leave them with a strong urge to look inside and figure out what they really wanted to do with their lives,” he says.

Mary Agnes Mullowney is a charter member of Toastmasters at MIT and reigning District 31 evaluation champion. She coached Jhingran during his speech preparation. “Vikas is a very powerful speaker,” she says. “The first time I saw him talk, I was mesmerized. As an ocean engineer, he spoke about waves and the dynamics of tsunamis. He expertly shared technical information, while weaving a story and making the subject come alive in a way that made me think: He belongs on an international stage, and I wasn’t talking about the Toastmasters International Speech Contest.

“I thought of how an ocean engineer with his vision and speaking ability could change the world. Vikas incorporates storytelling, fables and parables. His speeches aren’t linear, or the predictable ‘you can improve your life’ messages. His presentations pack a powerful, philosophical punch.”

Since she also works at MIT, Mullowney often ran into Jhingran in the hallways, where he would ask for feedback on his speech.

“Throughout the process, he remained totally committed to the truth of his speech and the importance of the audience grasping that truth and being changed by it,” she says.

Like any good speaker, Jhingran worked hard on perfecting his message and elicited the help of other Toastmasters along the way. “Vikas sought out practice time with a variety of clubs and audiences,” says Ruth Levitsky, a fellow member of the Humor and Drama club at MIT. “It was fascinating to hear him refine his message and discover what he wanted to say. From watching his progress, I learned that to give your best to the audience, you must carefully consider what it is you want to give them.”

When it’s all said and done, Jhingran is not only happy about the championship, but also encouraged about the impact he has made on other Toastmasters.

“I am the first Toastmaster from Asia to win as well as the first person whose second language is English,” he says. “My hope is that my winning will encourage people who are shy or have an accent to realize that they can do it, too.”

In the future, Jhingran hopes to use his speaking skills to advance his career. “Now I can be the one to describe my own research and accomplishments,” he says. He is also interested in developing his leadership skills and will be seeking out opportunities to grow in that area. 

Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Reach her at