6 and a half pointers to help you lose 3MT

Click to jump to to the pointers. 

Last week I competed in the UQ finals for the 3-Minute Thesis. For those of you who are unaware, the 3MT is a world-wide competition that asks post-grad students to communicate the thrust of their research in 3-minutes, using a single static slide, and in a way that an intelligent but non-expert audience can understand (click here for full criteria).

Getting to this level of competition is no mean feat. I won second place at the entry level of the competition (within the School of Psychology), then won first place at the second level (Faculty of Health and Behavioral Sciences).  My university takes the competition pretty seriously, offering a 5K travel grant and entry in to the Trans-Tasman competition for first place, and a 2K travel grant for second.

Despite my preparation I did not persuade the judges. I did however feel good about my speech. I performed it as well as I could have hoped, even if my experience on the stage was that some of my ‘notes’ didn’t quite resonate with the audience. That said, I definitely needed to smile more. Here I am:


Below is second place, Shaun Chen, who also won People’s Choice. Shaun was my favourite speaker of the night, and a very worthy winner. I saw him present an earlier version of his work some weeks prior, and was very impressed with the changes he made – they were well considered and impactful. Shaun had good stage-craft, and committed to his bit well.

And here is Teegan Green, the winner. I’ll be honest, I was not particularly impressed. While her topic is fairly sexy, she rushed her speech in the last minute, and employed jargon and bafflegab (“Using construal theory, developed in 2003… and later refined in a 2010…”). That said, she used her voice quite well (when unrushed) and was able to hit a lot of notes. I suspect using audience participation was also a factor in the winning decision (as no-one else did it). I was not a judge, nor do I have any insight into the decision making process of the judges that night, but I do believe there were several stronger contenders (specifically, Alyce Swinbourne).

Nonetheless, a panel of judges must have seen something I missed, and I wish Teegan the best of luck at the next level (and excellent travels!).

I have to thank a number of people who offered me incredibly helpful advice and feedback during the 3MT process. Historically, people like Will Harrison, Matt Thompson and Wen Wu (all previous 3MT winners) have shaped how I approached the competition. More recently, people like Zan Saeri, Morgan Tear, Tim Ballard, and Rachel Searston (as well as a few others) offered very constructive feedback on several iterations of the speech. Here I offer a few insights that I was given / developed over the last few years.

Click to read pointers…

1. The 3MT is a game.

While the ostensible goal of 3MT is to present your research, the ‘story’ takes precedence. ‘The absurdity of human behaviour’ is way more accessible than ‘How does causal opacity contribute to our understanding and response to ritual acts?’. This is why we often see so many competitors ‘curing cancer’, because it is more relatable than ‘How obscure genes regulate protein production in a cells susceptible to cancer’. It is also why we see an over-representation of applied research, rather than basic research. When you are writing your entry, it is way more important to give the audience something concrete to hold on to than to represent your science to the standard you (or your supervisor) would expect. Incidentally, when you compete with your speech at the lower levels, you benefit from greater specificity and less game-playing (because judges are also experts in your field). As you pass through heats, recognize that any individual judge now has less knowledge of your area, and now requires more concrete examples to hold on to (and less accurate science). Which means…

  1. Draft. Then draft, draft, draft, and draft again.

This, of course, is after you have written at least 3 distinct versions of your speech. Your first idea sucks, and it almost certainly suffers from the curse of knowledge. Anticipate your audience. A perfect speech at the first level of competition is not a perfect speech at a later level. Your primarily goal should be to work at the exact level the judges require. Are they life-long experts of your field (as they are at the lowest level of competition) or are they highly competent experts in other fields and/or expert communicators with no science grounding (as can be the case at University level)?

I also found drafting out loud, by drilling my script to my kitchen wall (and by extension, my neighbour), was important because…

  1. How you write is not how you speak.

Repeating, re-iterating, and re-arranging is of critical importance. Some phrases that sound good on paper do not sound good hanging in the air of an auditorium. Some phrases that read poetically do not form well in the mouth. The first sentence of this paragraph is an example – alliteration may be a useful device, just as it might be useful to leave the signifier of the sentence to the end. If I were to speak that sentence, I would draft it as “It’s critically important to understand the structure of your speech” (it’s boring, yes, but this is the foundation upon which to build a something much cooler).

  1. Direct the thoughts of your audience.

I couldn’t recommend Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style’ more highly. Employ the conversational style. And make sure that you control your message tightly. The structure of a good 3MT is pretty easy to nail, and allows you to direct the focus and thoughts of your audience.

  1. Set up the problem (with something catchy and concrete)
  2. Ask questions that highlight the difficulty of the problem.
  3. Explain what you do in the simplest way (“…In the lab, I run experiments…”).
  4. Explain your findings. Don’t use more than three sentences. The story is more important than your findings.
  5. Put your findings in context (begin addressing the problem you set up earlier).
  6. Conclude. Answers your earlier question. Leave no loose ends. Every sentence is a 3MT must do work. If it doesn’t add more information at first pass, it must be referenced later and contribute then (a technique which can be employed multiple times on a single sentence. Consider my ‘burning cake’ example).
  1. Ask yourself: “What are you saying?”

This is a trick, offered casually by a friend, that is unexpectedly profound. Do this at the level of the script, and at the level of the paragraph. More importantly, do it at the level of the sentence (and even the word). Read a sentence and ask “What are you saying?”. Answer that question using a new sentence. If that sentence is shorter, clearer, or more effective, use it. Do this twice (at least).

This technique is also useful when practicing your speech out loud, because you need to…

  1. Practice making mistakes.

Naturally, you’re already practicing your speech an hour a night, right? Good. Now start freestyling on what you’ve already memorized. Re-jig sentences, re-express ideas, re-arrange paragraphs. Anticipate blanking, and practice recovering. You’ll never be stuck if the ideas that live in your head and fluid and follow an idea. You will inevitably get stuck if what lives in your head is script and a rigid commitment to following it.

     6.5 Make you slide simple, stupid.

Seriously. Just put up a pretty picture. Do not lean on it for explanatory value. At most, squeeze in a joke. Avoid text (unless you intend it to do work for you).

And there you have it: 6 and a half pointers to help you lose your next 3MT. Good luck!