Episode 18 – How to give a fantastic very short talk
If you haven’t yet taken part in a speaking competition like the Three-minute thesis (3MT) or Famelab, what are you waiting for? You’ll gain so much by working out how to explain your research in a really short amount of time.
This week Michael and Jen are joined by our wonderful colleague Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, who has had great success in a number of speaking competitions.
Together, we give all our best advice on how to prepare and deliver a brilliant short talk. We also have excellent tips for you from our alumni Kate Huckstep and Sarah McColl-Gausden.
Plus here are a couple of resources to help you:
How to Become an Authentic Speaker
11 Tips for the Three-minute thesis competition
The three-minute thesis: principle of scientific communication
Tips for the three-minute thesis slide
Famelab: Judge’s top tips
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m so thrilled to be here with you.
I’m Jen, and I’m delighted as always to be joined by Michael Wheeler. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m very excited for this episode.
Well, so am I because this way you can not only… do you and I get to have a chat, but we are being joined by one of our very favourite colleagues.
Our wonderful friend Catriona. Hello Cat.
Hi Jen. Hi Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here and chat to you.
So Cat, this time you don’t get to just talk about yourself, which is what we asked you about last time you joined us on the podcast. This time we want you to share your extreme expertise and high level of experience in a particular area. And that is, in today’s episode we want to talk about one of the ways that I think many scientists actually have their first formal experience or maybe an organised experience of science communication, and that is taking part in a speaking competition.
So there’s lots of different types of competitions out there. I’m sure all of our listeners will have heard of at least some of them. So the main ones probably are the Three Minute Thesis Competition, affectionately known as the 3MT, which began here in Australia at the University of Queensland in 2008. And is now held at over 900 universities in 85 countries. Another very well known competition is FameLab run by the British Council. There’s also Falling Walls, which is run all around the world and then has its final in Berlin, which probably makes sense if you think about what falling walls might allude to. Here in Melbourne we have a competition especially for undergraduate science student[s] called Let’s Torque, very cleverly named Talk being TORQUE in spelling.
And I’m sure our listeners will know of other competitions. And they’re all subtly different. So a key thing we’re probably going to talk a bit about today is for example, in the Three Minute Thesis you can only use the spoken word and one static slide when explaining your research. Whereas in FameLab that Cat has lots of experience in, you aren’t allowed a slide at all, but you are allowed to have props and costumes and performances like song [are] also encouraged, which if any of you listen to our episode with Cat in the first season, you’ll know that singing is something that Cat does very well when it comes to science communication.
So look, there are subtle differences. But I think there are definitely some things that all of these competitions have in common, and that is that you’re encouraged to share a scientific topic with a broad audience. So you have to make your science accessible and easy to understand and avoid jargon. You absolutely need to be engaging. You need to capture and then maintain you know, really captivating your audience’s attention.
And you have to be concise. So the tagline for the Three Minute Thesis Competition is that an 80,000 word PhD thesis would take 9 hours to read. But competitors in this Three Minute Thesis Competition only get 3 minutes. And the history of the Three Minute Thesis that I’m sure some of our listeners will have heard about was that at the time Queensland was in a severe drought, everyone was encouraged to keep their showers very short. So lots of people had a 3-minute egg timer in their bathroom. And the story goes that the then Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Queensland, Emeritus Professor Alan Lawson was kind of having a shower looking at his three-minute timer and had this brain wave of what if we got PhD students to explain their research in only three minutes?
So that’s kind of my introduction to the topic for today. And the reason that we want to have this conversation with the three of us is because we all have different experiences of these competitions. So our aim really is to share with you why we think it’s a fantastic idea for you to take part, our thoughts on what it takes to do well in them and really just to share our different experiences.
So Cat, obviously welcome back to Let’s Talk SciComm. But can you tell us about your experiences with these competitions? ‘Cause I know you’ve had a few.
Yeah, and I’ve been on both sides as well. So I’ve participated in the 3MT, both the official University of Melbourne 3 Minute Thesis Competition. And I did that both in 2017 and 2021 and used two different stories. I just thought I’d you know, come back and see how I could do with a different story. And I also participated in FameLab Australia, so did the Victorian semi finals and then went through to the national competition. And I’ve… you, you mentioned Let’s Torque as well, the undergraduate competition, and I’ve judged for that, and I know you judged the year before I did. So yeah, we can both talk about that.
Yeah, absolutely. And Michael tell us about your experiences.
Yeah, so mine was 2017 with the Three Minute Thesis Competition that I entered once. And yeah, it was great experience, in front of a live audience, which is something that might be hard to fathom at the moment. It’s interesting Cat that you’ve done a live audience 3MT and then one in 2021 which was the video style.
Yeah, they were so different. And the way you approach it is so different.
So yeah, we can talk about that too.
And Michael, I think at this stage we need to point out you did win the Three Minute Thesis Competition when you took part.
Ah to our listeners, if you can see Michael suddenly going very bright, you know, shade of red and blushing.
No, it was, it was a great experience. So I won the, the UWA 3 Minute Thesis Competition and then went on into the, the finals representing the university but didn’t win the overall final. So at the university level I did, yeah.
That’s still amazing.
We’re very proud of you, Michael.
So unlike you guys, I never actually had the opportunity to take part in these competitions as a student. So I finished my PhD pre-2008, not long pre-2008, but before the Three Minute Thesis existed. But I guess what I can bring to the competition is, yeah, having been a judge for many years for the Three Minute Thesis Competition, both within the Faculty of Science as well as the university more broadly. I’ve also had the pleasure of judging FameLab and Let’s Torque as Cat said. I’ve MCd the Falling Walls competition here in Victoria a couple of times, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a lot of those talks too.
And I think we should just start by reflecting on why do we think these competitions are worth doing. Because obviously if you’re a PhD student or an undergrad, you know you’re busy doing a lot of things and, and it’s pretty stressful I think to commit to taking part in one of these competitions.
I’d love to hear what you each got out of it. And would you recommend people do put themselves forward for competitions like these? Michael’s nodding vigorously. Tell us Michael.
It’s a great experience and I would say to do it early on as well, because there’s always a chance that you might be able to be part of the competition more than one year in a row.
For me it was something I kind of signed up to at the last minute. I was just checking my emails, probably procrastinating. Came across this interesting advertisement for the 3MT competition. Oh if I do that, maybe you know… I’ll have to delay my other tasks for a bit longer.
That’s such a mood.
Yeah, and look, I had no expectations. I went along and it was just a fantastic experience, just really interesting getting to meet other students in other disciplines and hearing them talk about their research and then thinking about your own research in ways that might be as interesting as possible to other people.
Yeah, I hadn’t really done that before. I mean, I had certainly been asked a question: ‘So what do you do?’ And talked about you know, what I was doing, but never in such a polished way. It was a really kind of great experience to go through. So I would highly recommend it. Lots of translational benefits to, to other aspects of your communication as well.
And aside from anything else, it’s great to have on your CV, we should point out.
What about you, Cat? What did you get out of it and would you recommend it?
Yeah no I, I definitely would recommend it. And just on on Michael’s final point on that, you always get asked what you do. As a PhD student, people are like, “Oh, what’s your research? What are you studying?” And I do think that after I did the 3MT, I could answer that question so much better.
Like you don’t recite your Three Minute Thesis to every single person that you come across who asked, who asks you that question, but you have a more consolidated answer and you can sort of get to the punch much faster.
So yeah, I, I think it’s that like thinking about why does anyone else care about my work especially doing something that’s just so so niche and it’s very much basic science. I actually kind of like the idea of thinking about why would this matter to other people. Why does this matter? Why am I doing this? And you can kind of answer those questions.
And I felt like I could be a lot more creative in FameLab, actually. And when I did that, it made me think about oh, what sorts of analogies can I use to explain the immune system? And it’s really a good way to kickstart this idea of thinking about how can you explain complicated science. So yeah, I really appreciated the fact that it has challenged me to think about all sorts of analogies and then with FameLab, how can I use props to explain what I’m talking about? How can I use song?
Yeah, I definitely want to come back. No no, we are going to come back to that Cat. I definitely want to talk about the kind of creative approaches that FameLab affords you, ’cause I think that’s really important.
But from the other side of the stage, I totally agree with everything that you’ve said. I think as much as it might seem like an extra thing to put on your list, and potentially something that’s going to be a little bit challenging and push you outside your comfort zone, I think there’s so much to be gained from putting yourself out there and learning how to communicate in a different way.
Because I really do think that for many, many people that I know, certainly many of our former students, this is their beginning as people who identify as wanting to be science communicators, or at least knowing that it’s something that they care about, communicating about their work more broadly. But I thought we should talk about a couple of specifics with the 3MT, given that it’s probably a competition many of our listeners might think about taking part in.
So I just wanted to get your feedback. There’s two sets of judging criteria in the 3MT, and they’re both equally important and I just wanted to hear your thoughts on how you do well I guess in these criteria. So the first one is around comprehension and content. So paraphrasing some of the questions here that the judges are asked to assess a speaker on, it’s: Did you provide enough context? Did you explain what you actually found out and not just here’s what I’m going to do, but this is what I found out. Did you make your audience care and see value in what you’re doing? Which is exactly what you were speaking about before Cat. Did you use simple words? Did you manage to explain your work in an understandable way?
So Cat, tell us. What are your tips when it comes to content and helping your audience to understand? How do you tell a really winning story?
Yeah, I think about it as how would I tell this to someone who’s still in high school? And I think about school when I think about students because… and this is something that I can’t remember who said it, it could have been this podcast actually. But you talk about the science and you convey the science to people as if they were you know, teenagers or, or high school students. And so I think about the stories I can tell, or the analogies I can use.
And so for me, for the first year, I was talking about my research into sunscreen allergies and I just told a story. I told the audience this is something that happened to me and so this is why I wanted to research it and this is what I found out. I would recommend practice in front of so many people from all sorts of places because they can point out, “Oh, I don’t understand that word” or you know I, I didn’t quite understand that, that concept. Because the more people you test it on, the more you can verify okay, this makes sense to someone completely outside my field.
Michael, any other thoughts about how to nail the comprehension and content criteria?
Hmm. Yeah, I think for me I was lucky in that my research really had a, a strong public health message and it was about tapping into that. But then taking a few steps back as well to really set the scene and provide the audience with enough context to bring them in, to make them care about the public health message. It was all about practice, I, I think I had practiced my, my pitch so many times, countless times. I, I lost count and it changed completely.
It changed completely the, the first time you practise it. I was actually a little bit nervous because you can look up 3MT videos online and these are highly polished presentations. And the first time I went to practise, it was nothing near that level. But you have to understand that these people have also been practising a lot, so that’s the secret to get there.
And don’t be scared to change up your pitch, come at it from different angles. Practise it on a variety of people as well, so you can really get a good sense of what is grabbing the audience’s attention and to yeah, get feedback. Don’t be afraid to change it up.
Oh absolutely. I like cull so much. From script number 1 to script number 10, 20, whatever.
We do always say it’s very important to decide what you can leave out when you’re giving a talk. But I think you’ve both kind of highlighted the fact that it’s actually really hard to separate the two big areas of judging criteria in the Three Minute Thesis. ‘Cause on the one hand yes, we’re talking about the content and whether people will understand it. But the other half of the judging criteria, which you both sort of brought in because you kind of have to is, is around engagement and communication.
So this is where judges are meant to think about: Was it really fascinating? Was I just enthralled? Did you as the speaker sound incredibly excited and passionate? Did you keep the audience’s attention? Do you have a stage presence? Did you command people’s attention? And I think you both sort of alluded to the fact that that’s part of telling the story.
Hmm. yeah. A little trick I used was to get a bit of audience interaction. I ask the audience a question and got them to raise their hand and then use that as a demonstration for my next point, and put it in terms of a typical day for a member of the audience because my research is all about finding out the optimal pattern of physical activity in a day.
Hmm. That’s a good way to keep people listening. Get them involved.
Yeah, yeah, I certainly think that whenever I’ve just listened to Three Minute Thesis talks, the best ones have always been ones that interact with the audience or engage them some way and a lot of people use rhetorical questions. And that’s great, you know, getting people to think and getting them to think of an answer to a question in their minds. But some of the standout talks that I’ve seen are ones that are looking at eyesight. And you know that image that you can look at with like a cross on one side and a circle on the other end? And like you cover one eye and then at some point you, the cross disappears? I probably explained that poorly. I can’t really remember it but…
I remember that talk too, I remember something about the cross and the covering eyes.
Yeah, exactly! You remember the talk because you do it. So you know, it stays in your memory much, much better. And like for me last year when I did, did the Three Minute Thesis competition I was like let’s shake hands and that’s kind of how I opened. And you know, obviously it’s a little bit of a joke because we are online and no one can shake your hand, but that kind of adds to it too I guess, it’s inviting them in.
Yeah, it’s interesting ’cause one of the criteria that I found really challenging when I had the opportunity to judge FameLab. So there’s essentially 3 criteria, 3 judging criteria for FameLab. The three Cs — content, clarity, and then the last one is charisma. And for me I found that word a bit I don’t know, like it’s so subjective. And in the notes for the judges, it says something like you know, the hard to describe but unmistakable quality of charisma. And I’m like well, it’s hard to describe, how can I judge according to that?
So I mean, I’d love your thoughts on… I, I just hate to think that there’s someone sitting there listening to this saying, Oh look, I’m really passionate about my research. I’m a bit nervous when it comes to public speaking. But I, I feel it would be good for me. But then they’re sitting there thinking, But I, I don’t know if I have stage presence. I certainly don’t know if I have charisma. Do you think that’s something that it’s really just about sharing your passion?
I remember Michael when we introduced, interviewed Dr Shane Huntington on the podcast. And Shane was saying you know, on radio he just tries to capture somebody’s passion. Because if you can capture their sense of excitement about their own work. A listener can’t help but be excited about it. So do you think is that what charisma is? Just showing someone that you really care about this work?
Yeah, like if you genuinely sound like you like your work, it’s like that, that passion is infectious. So you sound interested in it, you’ll make a lot of people interested in it. Because if you don’t sound interested, people are just sort of like… well, if you don’t care, why should we?
But yeah, you definitely don’t need to be a performer. Or like have some sort of amazing stage presence where you’re standing up and you are a character. Or you know, like a full on performer. Just be you. But sound really interested in what you’re doing ’cause that weighs so much.
Yeah, I think it’s a great point that you say Cat. Be you, you want to show your personality when you’re on stage. And you don’t want to be someone that you’re not. So yeah, for me, it was work on the content. First, make sure you get that and it’s nice and clear. And then once you’re happy with that, play around with the delivery of it and just practice emphasising different parts, practice having pauses at different parts and for different lengths as well.
Yeah, the pauses are so important. Like you’ve only got 3 minutes, but you’ve got to have pauses, like let things sink in.
So I want to come back to what you’re talking about, which is about really, very very carefully planning everything you say and do. I think that’s really important to talk about. But just before we get there Cat, I really wanted to get your thoughts on… So one of the things with the Three Minute Thesis Competition is that you get to have one static slide and we talk a lot with students about the importance of that slide. You know, it can’t be busy, it shouldn’t be anything that you know, it can look nothing like a standard science presentation. Whatever you do, don’t put a graph, don’t put anything that requires any cognitive resources to understand it. Ideally just have a simple picture, maybe something that evokes emotion. That’s sort of your chance.
So I want to hear your thoughts on that. But then Cat, how does that compare to FameLab which is all about costumes and props and potentially music or poetry. You know, I’d love to hear about what that creative element allowed you to do that’s so different to a more standard 3MT talk.
Yeah. For me, yeah, I, I try and use some that, that sort of, evoke some sort of emotion. So in the first year I use[d] a picture of my face after I had the sunscreen allergy. And because that’s very very striking it’s like look, you can tell that’s me. But why is that photo there? But then I felt like last year the title of my talk was a handshake to shake off tuberculosis. And so it was a picture of a handshake and yes, it makes sense to have it in there. But it doesn’t… I felt like it didn’t really add much, it was just yeah…
‘Cause that’s the judging criteria. The judging criteria is does the slide enhance your presentation?
Yeah, I honestly, I didn’t feel like it did. Because I was like you know, using my hands to do handshakes in front of people and and explaining what was what. So I felt like just a picture of a handshake didn’t really do much.
But then with FameLab you’re right, you can just be so much more creative. And so I, I used shields of different like strengths I guess or, or like you could tell that one was a really really bad shield and the other one was a great shield. To sort of be like look at different times, your immune system can be super strong or really weak, and things can get through. Had audience participation in that one too. Had someone throwing a virus at me and missed.
That just adds humour, right?
But yeah, there are certainly people who use costumes very much to their advantage. There was one person who was talking about bees and dressed up as their favourite blue banded bee. And it’s sort of just like well, I can’t have a slide to show you what this bee looks like, but this is what the bee looks like, just look at me.
Yeah and for me I used costume to sort of say, this is me as a child asking a simple question. Oh now I’m a scientist and I can actually explore this question as a scientist and this is the answer, but I’m going to strip it all off and end up as this child and the child finally has the answer.
Yeah, I remember that very vividly Cat, but I think that’s interesting. But yeah, I really want to get your opinions before we finish on the fact that we know that pretty much all of these talks I think are word for word, scripted and memorised. And as we’ve talked about, where am I going to pause? How long am I going to pause? You know, we’ve talked about the fact that you, you really prepare these talks to within an inch of their lives, partly because you’ve only got 3 minutes and certainly in the Three Minute Thesis Competition, if you make a sound after that three-minute bell, you’re disqualified. So it’s very strong impetus to plan carefully.
Yet we know that when we’re teaching students how to give good public talks, we always say the worst thing you can do is to memorise a talk. It’s a recipe for disaster. You’ll forget what you’re saying, you’ll get lost, you’ll lose track, you’ll you know, it makes it so hard to have any spontaneity in connection with your audience. So how do you think we reconcile those two facts that we know memorising can be a disaster, but yet you kind of have to memorise for these competitions. What are your thoughts?
Well, just before either of us answer that, my immediate thought is like it’s just like science where there’s a rule but there’s always an exception. This is the exception.
Yeah, that’s right.
Yeah, I think it is the exception. But then again, if you are in a position where you, you know, you forget to say a particular word on your script, it’s possible to also just try and continue on if you can and don’t get too hung up about it. Because that actually happened to me when I was on stage performing and I forgot to say a particular word. And rather than struggling to try and remember what the word was, I just carried on. I don’t think anyone noticed. So I think I got away with it.
Of course they didn’t notice, they didn’t know it was in your script.
So I think yeah, just being aware that that the audience is probably not going to pick up on if you do forget to say one of those keywords.
But then at the same time yeah, having your script written out and, and memorised.
Yeah no, definitely I think for a 3 Minute Thesis you need to know, like you need a script. And I think it’s actually quite nice to see the evolution of a script as you go through the heats and then the, the semifinals. And as you practise more and more and more and and test it on more people.
But Michael, you did much better than I did. I must say the worst ever talk I have given was a 3 Minute Thesis. And it was for the School of Biomedical Sciences and I just, Oh gosh! Trauma, PTSD.
So two things. As Michael says, just you know, try and keep going and I just struggled to do that in the moment.
But the other thing that you don’t really think about is know the space. So my entire presentation relied on the fact that I’m on one side of the slide for part of it, and then I crossover to the other side and I couldn’t do that in the space. So that just threw me.
Yeah, that’s stressful.
I, I sort of… went through my head. You know, how am I going to adapt? Like what am I going to do? And I kind of had a plan but when I got up there like my last minute crammed plan into my head just flew out the window and I couldn’t remember what I was trying to say and I struggled to pick it up again. So you know you, you learn from that and you move on.
I think it is important to like practice and to kind of know what you want to say. Have a script, also know what you want to say so that if that kind of thing happens like I was just like OK, I can’t remember my script, but what are the kind of things that I wanted to say, and so I just talked.
I think that’s such a good point though Cat, about if at all possible, practice enough so that you can manage your nerves enough on the day so that if things do go wrong, you can recover. Because of course, you’re going to be nervous. You’ll absolutely be nervous. And as we’ve already discussed on this podcast before, being nervous is good. But you have to be able to manage those nerves enough so that if you suddenly go blank, you can get back to the basics of what’s my research about? Why does it matter to me? What’s a story I could tell?
Because I’ve seen twice now in my time judging the Three Minute Thesis where somebody has clearly just gone into absolute robot mode, if I’m going to recite to you something that I’ve learned word for word, come unstuck at some point, stand there silent with this most distressing look on the person’s face, and then turn to the judges and say can I start again? And of course, at that point they’re a minute or a minute and a half into their talk and the answer has to be no, you can’t start again because you won’t get through it, all we’ll hear is the same thing you’ve already said.
And your heart just breaks at that point for someone who’s worked so hard and then just can’t manage to do it on the day. So I guess just trying to stay calm enough so that you’re presenting, but there’s another part of your brain that is still functioning and has the wherewithal to kind of say, OK, if I get lost it won’t be the end of the world. I’ll still be able to say something. Because it’s you know, presenting in front of an audience is stressful.
Yeah, I think my tip there would be to leave some room for pausing in your pitch. If you have your pitch going right up to the line, right on the three minutes, you know there’s no room to pause, to insert a pause that you hadn’t planned. And then you’re going to really stress if you forget a word. But if you finish up you know, maybe with five seconds of silence, then you know that you’ve got a little bit of thinking time. Like 5 seconds you know, is a long time to, to think.
Particularly if you can keep your face calm enough that people think the pause is planned rather than looking like absolute terror, this look of terror on your face.
Well, I’m so grateful to both of you for sharing your wisdom today. We do need to move on because it’s time to hear tips from our students and alumni on some of their experiences of these competitions. But thanks so much Michael and Cat.
And I can’t wait to hear from some of our listeners. Get in touch with us on social media and tell us about your experiences of these competitions.
It could be good and bad. Like mine…
Indeed. Thanks so much.
Thanks, that was great.
Hi, my name is Sarah and I recently completed my PhD in Fire Science. What I was researching [was] how to better predict future fire regimes. Today, I have some tips for a Three Minute Thesis style talk. These talks are very different to your typical conference talk. We might have say 10 to 15 minutes to tell you a story. Here, as the name suggests, you’ve only got 3. So this is probably the only time I suggest that you actually script your talk. You have such a short amount of time to get people excited about your research that you need every second to tell your story.
But how do you tell your story? Well for me, I use lots of computer models and simulations to answer some of my research questions, which can be a pretty dry topic. So I decided to go for a computer game analogy. I use this analogy to better explain how I conducted my research, in a way that would be more understandable to a wide audience. As always, remember your audience. They will not be specialists in your field, so try to avoid jargon and explain any key terms.
My final tip is to practice, practice, practice. Whether you will be presenting your talk in person, or online, you want to appear excited, open and engaging. If you are presenting online like I did, you can feel pretty disconnected from your audience. But try to look at or near the camera. ‘Cause this will help engage with those watching, even if you can’t see them. Good luck with any Three Minute Thesis talks.
Hey folks, I’m Kate, an Addiction Neuroscience PhD student, and a host of the Science Comedy podcast Curiosity Killed the Rat, which you can find wherever you get your pods.
So my top tip for short 3 Minute Thesis style talks, or at least what’s worked well for me in the past is to think about using those three minutes to tell a story. I feel like we’re often told to think about the hook for a talk like that, but I think it can be even more effective to talk about that hook and then run with it for the whole 3 minutes. Refer back to it, make a narrative that the audience can follow and bring it to a nice neat conclusion at the end.
3 minutes is not very long to deliver what is often quite a lot of pretty complex information, right? And it can be a lot for an audience to digest and retain in such a short period of time. But humans are very good at following and remembering narratives, especially if you compare that with some kind of visual aspect that they can picture. We are super good at remembering visuals. This way you can kind of lead your audience on a tale of your research right? And have them actually understand and remember it all by the end, which ultimately is the whole goal, right?
Hope this helps. Good luck.
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