3MT – what’s the point?

Grand Final week. It’s a highlight on any Melbournian’s calendar. But my Grand Final of interest had nothing to do with red and white, brown and gold and a strange shaped ball. I am referring to the Grand Final of the 3 Minute Thesis at the University of Melbourne. The team I support was well represented, with two of the ten finalists from the ranks of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences. The presentations were engaging, fascinating and very well-rehearsed – it made me think about presenting research in a whole new way, about how I respond to every conversation that starts with “so, what exactly do you do?”

The 3 minute thesis started in 2008 at the University of Queensland, and has spread across Australia, into the U21 network of universities and into 18 countries outside Australia. Clearly, the creators were onto something. The idea is to explain your research project to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. So, here’s my 3 minute thesis on presentation skills:

  1. You don’t need slides to do an oral presentation. The presenters in the 3MT are limited to a single static slide, no animation, no frills – and it works brilliantly. If you think about it, significant time goes into explaining a diagram or chart. You need to introduce what it is showing, clarify what the components are, draw attention to the important findings or features, and then explain how this advances your argument. Of course, this is a worthwhile investment if your audience needs all the evidence behind your work, but how often is that really true? If you’re short on time, simpler graphics can be much more efficient and effective.
  2. Shorter duration doesn’t have to mean simpler ideas. Your thesis, by definition, is full of complexity, whether it’s the concepts, the methodology or in the interpretation. Sure, you could present your research in a simplified form to cut down on the time. Or, you can draw on anecdotes, metaphors and emotional engagement of the audience to make ideas accessible. Tying your project into something your audience already has complex knowledge of is an effective method to get them “up to scratch” quickly. Of course, the linchpin is making sure you choose the right metaphor for your particular audience. If they’re not into computers, then using html code as a metaphor for a genome won’t help much!
  3. Rehearsal is not optional. Pauses are very effective if used strategically in speech, but less so when used because you’ve forgotten what idea comes next. Gestures and movement can be distracting if used haphazardly, but when strategically placed into the presentation, are great for engagement. It often seems some people are just “born presenters”, but this is largely a fallacy; like writing or networking, presenting effectively is something you can learn. I think it’s more like playing a musical instrument or dancing ballet – practicing smaller components and adding new techniques over time is the key. Most of your favourite lecturers from your undergrad degree weren’t born with amazing presentation skills, they developed them through observation and practice.

So, is my three minutes up yet? The most striking thing about the 3MT grand final was that every presentation ran exactly to time. The motivation, of course, is that any speaker who goes over 3 minutes is disqualified – I can think of some conferences that would benefit from the same strict rules! Unfortunately, the 3MT competition is only open to PhD students post-confirmation, but for anyone who meets the criteria, I strongly recommend you to get involved next year. If you’re not eligible, perhaps your 3 minute thesis should be developed for networking at conferences and functions.  It’s a great reason to think about your research from a new angle.