Preparing to present

The Melbourne Cup: “the race that stops a nation”. I look forward to stopping this afternoon, sausage and bread in hand, to watch some amazing equine athletes do what they do best. But for me, the revelry will be short-lived. I am working hard to prepare my presentation for our upcoming Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences Postgraduate Symposium, to be held at the University of Melbourne Werribee campus on November 20 and 21.

It seemed timely, therefore, that I stumbled across this blog post from Gradhacker (one of the blogs I frequent, to remind me that I’m not alone in this RHD journey). Entitled Conference Talks: A Head-butt or a Headache? it explores common ground we all feel: nervousness, panic, preparing and delivering your presentation, and helps put it all into perspective. Our Postgrad Symposium is a great place to practice these presentation skills, with an audience who understands how it feels to be an early expert in a scientific sub-discipline. All the best with your preparations!


The banana test

A very useful idea to help your writing… making sure your introductions and framing sentences are specific to your area of investigation.

Research Degree Voodoo

When we talked about introductions last week, I said not to be too broad.  How do you know if you’re being too broad?

My colleague Karen says: ‘Use the banana test’–if you can substitute your key word for ‘banana’ and it still makes sense, it’s not specific enough.

Throughout history, political processes (bananas) have been significant to human society.

Since the nineteenth century, political processes (bananas) have become increasingly more accessible to ordinary people.

Since 1973, people over 18 have been eligible to vote in Australia, thus expanding their engagement in political processes (bananas).

Banana in parliament

So we can see that last one is actually about right.  Much more specific than you might have thought!

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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.

So you’re an RHD student…

Your research degree, whether masters or a PhD, might be one of the most challenging things you do in your life. It can also be one of the most rewarding – I dream of the day when I can hold my printed, bound thesis, knowing that all my hard work and dedication has paid off. Then it turns into a nightmare about having it examined… but let’s not think about that.

This blog is the brainchild of one early-candidature PhD student in the University of Melbourne FVAS. The first months of the PhD were a very stressful time, trying to figure out what research is and how you’re supposed to go about it. The advice, “you should read as much as you can, and start writing now” only goes so far when you don’t even know what a research question is, let alone what yours might be!

This place is designed as a safe haven during your RHD experience. RHD and me is all about figuring out how to make the your degree work for you, and even having a life on the side. Content will include links to helpful blog posts, reviews of events that you might find helpful (like the University of Melbourne’s Upskills programs), and anything else we think of along the way. Contributions are welcome – just email with your ideas.

To start with, check out the Three Minute Thesis and consider coming along to the 3MT grand final on Thurs 25th September 2014. There’s always more lessons to learn about how to effectively communicate your research to the wider world – so it’s definitely a productive way to spend your time!!

In a little while, I’ll introduce you to our mascot, the Rather Helpful Dugong, or Rhodie for short. Rhodie hopes to become the symbol for light at the end of the tunnel and the camaraderie that exists between us all in the Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences faculty! In the meantime, just keep swimming.