The stage was set. A thousand people had taken their seats. Stage lights were blaring. Cameras were circling. In the green room, 10 PhD students, 10 knotted stomachs. I have a weird interest in seeing how other people cope with pressure. Some use humour, some remain pessimistic. Some are humble, some are cocky. Some laugh, lots cry. All this nervous tension though, for only three minutes on stage.
I’m referring to the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, an international competition where PhD students have to present their entire thesis, years and years of work, into a three-minute presentation with a single, static PowerPoint slide. Ludicrous, I know. However, amidst all the prize money and prestige of the competition, there was an important lesson to be learned, something that I feel is vital in the field of research – the art of communication. Here, I try to outline my thought process when writing my 3MT.
If presenting in a measly three minutes isn’t challenging enough, the criteria further stipulates that your presentation must be pitched to a generalist audience, people that don’t have extensive, if any, knowledge surrounding your topic. But how do you convey something that is so inherently complex into something simplistic without completely trivializing the work? Once you pull out a word like “microRNA” and try to explain it in a way you would in a scientific paper, you’ve immediately lost your audience. That’s what I sought to answer as I wrote my speech.
Let me first write a disclaimer: writing this went against the grain of almost everything I was taught to do as a young researcher. After my supervisor read my honours thesis, he told me that I have too much emotion in my writing, which makes complete sense. I grew up working on my creative writing, honing it to the point where I actually enjoyed the process. All through my undergraduate degree I wrote sports articles for the campus newspaper. Journalism was something that I strongly considered pursuing due to my love for expressing emotion through words, so in a lot of ways, the 3MT was right down my alley. But it felt odd nonetheless. We’re drilled to state the facts and not much more, but the 3MT wanted more. Why should people care? What’s the bigger picture? How does your work, no matter how small the piece is, fit into the entire puzzle?
Like every good story, there needs to be a beginning, middle, and end. For the introduction, I had to introduce the topic, the main “characters” of our research. I also needed to grab the audience’s attention. Starting with a rhetorical question helps but due to the short time stipulations, I had to be interactive without actually having to be interactive. I first thought of the bigger picture. In my case, we are working on a gene therapy for age related macular degeneration (AMD). The bigger picture wasn’t gene therapy or what pathway our therapy is working on, the bigger picture was AMD. We have a molecule that could help push the fight against AMD. Suddenly, I had a starting point. I introduced the gravity of the situation with short punchy statements. Big statements.
Now that I had the audience’s attention, I needed to hold it there. Three minutes isn’t a long time but let’s be honest, in this day and age anything longer than a two-minute YouTube video already seems long, so the body of the speech was vital. It was also where the difficult concepts had to be explained and the bulk of the research had to be presented. I tried not to concentrate on individual results, rather the concept and principles of our research and what it meant. A whole page in a normal research manuscript, translated into a sentence or two maximum. I’m a firm believer in metaphors to explain difficult concepts. I think making comparisons to something in everyday life that everyone goes through is a very effective way of conveying ideas. For my case, microRNA was the difficult concept to explain as the word itself sends shivers down some people’s spines! In a nutshell, microRNA are tiny endogenous molecules that post-transcriptionally regulate genes, but rather than individual genes they have the ability to target multiple genes, all working within the same cellular pathway. Some of you may be nodding right now but there was no way that description was going to suffice in this competition. So I thought hard about a metaphor to use. MicroRNA acting on an entire pathway was like ripping the weeds from the root rather than just cutting their stem. This metaphor became a key selling point to my speech.
Finally, the conclusion had to be effective. I wanted it to be dramatic. I wanted it to be personal. I wanted it to hit home to the audience why they should care about what I had told them. It wasn’t enough for me to simply write a speech that I would regurgitate to hundreds of people. I wanted to give them something to think about when they left. Regardless of the result of the competition, I made sure my speech would stick in their minds and the conclusion had to make that possible.
The 3MT allowed me to bring out my creative side in terms of scientific writing, something I didn’t really have the opportunity to do before and something I truly enjoyed doing. In saying that, the key to my speech was belief. I honestly believe in the research we’re doing and the good that can come of it and when you have that, selling the idea isn’t difficult. All you need is the confidence to do so.
Joshua Chu-Tan is a 3rd year PhD student with the Provis Group at The Australian National University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, Canberra, investigating gene therapies for age related macular degeneration. He loves writing whilst sipping espressos in the finest hipster cafes. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @joshchutan.
About the 3MT.
The 3 Minute Thesis is an international competition for research students to showcase their research. Students have to talk about what their research is and why it is important in plain language, for three minutes, with only a single PowerPoint slide. Founded by the University of Queensland in 2008, 3MT events are now hosted by over 400 institutions across six continents. You can view Josh’s winning 3MT presentation at the 2016 Asia-Pacific finals at this link.