This blog post is less of a collation of thoughts, and more a blatant promotion of the 3MT (Three minute thesis competition).
The 3MT is an annual competition, originally developed by the University of Queensland, and now a world-wide phenomenon, in which postgraduate students explain their research (squashing 2-4 years of research) in just 3 minutes, to a general audience. Armed only with a single powerpoint slide, students have to communicate their research effectively without the use of any props.
A few weeks ago, UWA hosted their round of the competition, and I was one of the participating students. For a performance that lasts only 180 seconds, the 3MT thesis requires a surprising level of preparation, rehearsal and rewriting. Preparation started weeks in advance with the help of the UWA Graduate Research Coordinators, and was a very steep learning curve.
Here are some of the key lessons I picked up on the way:
1. It's only a competition on the day
In the weeks leading up to the competition, all of the students met to work on their presentations. We told them to each other. This was such a fun and useful part of the process. Not only can other students see and remind you of the broader picture of your research (which, when you are deep into your research may be a bit obscured) , but the process of seeing everyone's 3MT develop and change over the weeks, can inspire aspects of your own presentation. One of the fellow students at UWA, for example, used a dramatic character in his talk. While I didn't have the confidence to do that in my talk, it really inspired me to use more physicality in my presentation. The collaboration involved in the preparation is what I take away from the experience.
2. Cut the chaff.
The timeframe of the 3MT means that every sentence and word is important. You will go over your script over and over again, trying to cut down the time, and that process not only develops a useful skill, but can make your presentation more succinct with a stronger point to make. Leave in only what serves the story and message you are telling. You will be surprised how much you want to put in because you find it interesting, not because it tells a story.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a story as 'a spoken or written account of connected events', and this, at it's fundamental, is what we do in research. The chapters or papers we are writing, are more often than not, NOT detailing experiments in the order in which they happened. Scientific writing is rarely a direct account of everything that happened in the lab. Instead, we organise the ideas, data and analysis in a way that ideas are connected and clearer to the reader. This is a form of storytelling. The 3MT teaches you that the way in which you organise your ideas can have a major impact on how well the audiences follows your story. Furthermore, there are many different types of story to tell, and entering the 3MT can introduce you to a variety of ways to communicate your research to different audiences through stories.
4. Use the stage.
The stage at the UWA 3MT semifinals and final was LARGE. As a single presenter in that big space, it was quite confronting. But once I was directed to use the stage more, and to address different parts of the audience, I began to feel more confident. Watching others do the same had a dramatic effect on the presentations they gave, and I definitely felt that it changed mine. It may feel strange the first time you walk from one end of the stage to the other, but it looks great as an audience member. Somehow, the speaker being at ease with using the space makes their talk easier to follow. I'm not quite sure why.
5. Pauses are good.
As I said before, three minutes is not a long time to communicate your research. As a result, one temptation is to cram as much information in as possible. Unfortunately, the end result of this can resemble a Sherlock Holmes monologue, Cumberbatch stylee (to which an early recording of my presentation can attest). Great for a dramatic reimagining of a genius detective......not great for an exercise in science communication. Cutting your speech down to the main points and evidence, and leaving time for the audience to process this information, makes a massive difference. You don't want the audience to worry that you might faint for lack of breath.
6. What are your hands doing?
Quick point, but the first couple of times you present your talk, you probably wont be paying much attention to what your hands and body are doing. Next time round, take note of what you do and whether you do what you do too much (repeated arm movements, holding your arms, or even keeping your arms straight by your side). You don't want what you do to distract the audience from what you are saying.
7. Realise that you are bilingual (but NO, you cant state that on your CV).
The knowledge acquired in any area of academia necessitates the development of specific set of vocabulary. I think that unfortunately, the process of studying a subject obscures the range and diversity of words that we have picked up over time, and leads us to forget that 1) most people will never have heard of some of the words that we use on a daily basis, and 2) at some point WE didn't know what those words meant, and were probably intimidated by all the words that we had to familiarise ourselves with to pass our exams.
Over time we have learnt the language of the subject/s that we study, and don't realise how alien it sounds to others. The process of reading out our presentations to each other highlighted these facts, with nomenclature from one faculty being unintelligible to another. As a result we were advised to find different ways of explaining everything we said. The hilarious result I experienced, was that sometimes, explaining ideas in a 'lay' way took less time and words!
8. The story you tell will have little resemblance to the one you started with.
After going through all the processes outlined above, every section of your talk will have changed and evolved. I found it useful to keep earlier drafts of my talk, to pinpoint why I changed sections, and to learn from that process.
9. The shorter your presentation, the more work you will have to put into it.
Three minutes really isn't a long time. The process of defining your message, and constructing a story while fitting that into the time frame means that every sentence has a role. Hours can be spent selecting the right word, (and making sure that it still makes sense to a general audience). Don't be mislead by it's shortness.
10. Enjoy the experience.
This one is pretty explanatory. It's only been a few weeks since the final, but it has changed how I think about communication and presenting.
I am happy to say that in the competition part, I made it to the UWA finals! It was a brilliant experience, and it was amazing seeing the other research going on across the Uni. The well deserving winner Marcus Giacci. recently headed to the Trans-Tasman finals. Check out his presentation, which I have linked to above!
If you are a postgraduate student at an Institution that hosts the 3MT, I highly recommend it. But make sure to put a chunk of time aside for preparation, because it will take more than you think.
Note: This post was first published on 13.10.15