Imagine yourself as one of the 12 finalists during this year's 3MT competition. As you walk slowly onto the center of the stage in the spacious auditorium, you know you have merely 3 minutes, one unanimated PowerPoint slide, a panel of distinguished judges, and more than 500 eyes from the audience riveted on you. The clock is ticking and this is your moment to shine.
The fourth 3MT competition organized by AWEC at NTU has drawn to a successful close. Since last year, we began working jointly with NTUST and NTNU to stimulate more well-crafted and inspiring academic presentations. This annual research communication event, created by the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, has been globally recognized and well-received by many of our faculty members and students at NTU. This year we had close to 150 graduate students take on this challenge to win the top cash prize of NT ,000. In the face of such an intense competition among so many well-versed contestants, one may ask: what is the key to giving a successful and winning 3MT presentation? As an instructor of the English Presentation for Academic Purposes course and one of the preliminary judges for two 3MT contests, I have watched a myriad of talented contestants'video submissions. My conclusion is that the most fundamental key to being chosen as a potential finalist rests on writing a memorable, easily accessible and well-structured speech. Here I provide some basic tips for writing a winning 3MT speech through a close analysis of some past 3MT winners in the local and international settings.
Tip One: Formulate your speech in a circular structure and think about a final takeaway message for the audience
This means that you should always remember to end up at the same point where you started. In other words, you should begin with an end in mind when outlining your speech. Here is an excerpt from the 2016 Asia-Pacific 3MT winning speech by Joshua Chu-Tan, a PhD student at the Australian National University (ANU), presenting his thesis entitled "Targeting the Roots of Vision Loss". His speech begins with his main topic regarding the significance of our eye sight and possible consequence of vision loss:
“If I asked everyone here to think about the one sense that you couldn't live without, I'm willing to bet that most of you would have immediately thought of your sight. That's because our vision and what we see plays such an integral role into how we perceive the world around us."
To conclude his speech, he reminded his audience of the dire consequences of vision impairment and ended up his speech with a powerful message for the audience to remember:
“Now I want everyone to look at this image [referring to the PPT slide] again, imagine living the rest of your life with vision like this, so the next time you're with your loved ones, study their faces, their every feature, commit that to memory, cherish that image because one in seven of you will lose that ability if nothing is done about this disease. With the use of micro RNA, my hope and my goal is that for millions of people, this image can become clear. Thank you".
Tip Two: Engage the audience from the very beginning
At the onset of an essay or oral s' presentation, having an effective "hook" or attention-grabber is absolutely crucial. This holds true as well for the 3MT competition. In spite of your innovative research ideas or material itself, the minds of audience members will drift away if you don't hit the ground running. In order to maintain the audience's, and most importantly, the judges' attention throughout the entire 3-minute presentation, I offer two recommendations here: 1) make it personal; 2) tell a compelling story.
As exemplified in the 2011 3MT runner up speech entitled"The paradox of listening to sad music" by Sandra Garrido, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, she began her talk by creating an emotional connection with her audience and drawing herself close to the audience.
“You and I all want the same thing: We want to be happy. Given this human preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness, it seems unlikely the people would deliberately seek out things they know will make them sad – and yet we do. I wonder how many of you have ever been to the cinema to see a film that you've heard described as a tear-jerker, or watched a favorite movie that you've cried in before, watched it again knowing that you're going to cry again. If there are aliens observing human behavior from outer space, this would have to seem bizarre, and yet, not only do humans engage in this behavior, we enjoy it".
By beginning with the message "You and I want the same thing: We want to be happy," the speaker made her talk relatable and relevant to her audience. When you build rapport with the audience this way, they become your allies and will more likely pay attention to you from the very beginning. Not only did the speaker establish a close relationship with her audience using the pronouns"you", "I", and "we", but she also aroused the curiosity of the audience with a puzzle: "Given this human preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness, it seems unlikely the people would deliberately seek out things they know will make them sad – and yet we do". This engagement with the audience also makes a good transition to the motivation for her research.
The best way to make your presentation personal to your audience is to identify and highlight the common ground between you, as the speaker, and the audience. Consider this question: what values, goals or experiences would you find in common with your audience? With this question in mind, you appeal to your audience with a compelling story or relate to your audience with a surprising fact or puzzling question.
Tip Three: Make technical concepts/ideas comprehensible and easily accessible to a non-specialist audience
The main goal of 3MT is to motivate graduate students to present their research ideas and discoveries in plain language to a non-specialist audience. Based on my observations, I have noticed that most of my students, especially those who study in the STEM-based subjects, find it challenging to simplify the complexity of their research ideas or turn abstract concepts into concrete ones. Analogy, using a comparison or a metaphor to relate difficult concepts or ideas to things with which the audience can associate, can make complex scientific terms or details easily accessible and more memorable to non-specialist audience.
For example, when the 2012 3MT winner, Jennifer Campbell from the Engineering Physics program at Queen's University of Canada presented her research, "Nanocantilevers: a new tool for medical diagnostics", she effectively explained the characteristics and functions of nanocantilevers by comparing them to the things that are easily accessible to the audience.
“Now nanocantilevers are like tiny little diving boards so they are attached on one end and free to move at the other but they’re really tiny about a hundred times smaller than a human hair in fact, and since they’re so small, just the weight of a single molecule on the end of that nanocantilever is enough to make it bend".
First, she compared nanocantilevers as "tiny little diving boards" and then explained how tiny nanocantilevers could be, compared to human hair. Later in her speech, she also described more details about her research focus by showing the audience how to make nanocantilevers as a powered breath analyzer for diagnosing medical diseases:
“I've been working on a new technique for measuring how much nanocantilevers bend. So what I do is I fabricate nanocantilevers right here on campus and I figure out a way to attach an extremely thin gold wire to one edge of that nanocatilever and the other end is fixed. So as that nanocantilever bends, that really thin gold wire stretches and we can measure that electrically, and that is how we can read out extremely tiny motions of these little nanocantilevers beams".
In another example, the 2016 3MT winner Sean McGraw, an Astrophysics PhD student from Ohio University, presented his research on "Black Holes: Little engines that control the evolution of galaxies", changing some scientific terminologies or concepts into the words that are more understandable to the audience. For example, he changed "spectrum" to "rainbow", and "absorption lines" to "dark lines", when explaining how he measured the black hole winds. He also chose the phrase "gas falling toward black hole" to replace "accretion" when describing the gas accumulation inside the center of an active galaxy.
“Telescopes today can collect the light from a galaxy and split it into a rainbow just like you see here. This is very important because the rainbow is coming from these active galaxies that have dark lines in them and these lines hold precious information about the black hole winds. I measure the dark lines in the rainbows of about a hundred active galaxies to gain insight into the black hole winds”
|Words to Change (Audience May Not Understand)
What the Speaker Says
Gas falling toward the black hole
What the Speaker Means
(Adapted from Sean McGraw presentation for Preparing a Successful Three-Minute Thesis 3MT Presentation: 影片連結 from Ohio University Physics, June 8, 2016)
When you have difficulties in explaining abstract or complicated scientific ideas, consider the words you have in question and choose the best choice of synonyms that would clearly convey the points most people can understand.
Tip Four: Start with a bigger picture and then connect the dots – from general to specific
There are different ways of structuring a 3-minute speech. You can organize your ideas in a problem-solution approach by identifying a research problem and intending to provide possible solutions to it. Another common way to structure your presentation is to start with a bigger picture related to your research and develop it into a more focused idea with specific details as you progress through the 3-minunte speech. This is also known as the deductive pattern of organization: general-specific order, commonly used in writing an academic scientific writing. To organize your ideas from the general to the specific, you need to first situate your research focus into a broader context to which a general audience can relate, and lead the audience from this bigger picture to the more focused area of study you do in your dissertation or thesis. As you progress through the three-minute time period, you should endeavor to connect the dots with the specific information you present and the research question you intend to address.
The diagram presented as below is the speech layout from Sean McGraw's 3MT presentation which is a typical example of general-specific organization pattern. This type of organization is very useful and easy to grasp because this framework is in tune with the CARS Model developed by Swales & Feak (2012), if you have taken the course "English Writing for Academic Purposes" offered by our center.
Tip Five: Answer important questions, but don’t try to say too much
Another difficulty revealed by a lot of the 3MT contestants during the process of writing their speeches is to decide what to talk about and what not to in this three-minute presentation. Many students have found it extremely difficult to focus on one single important idea and ignore the details of their research because they may have spent days and nights in the labs fiddling with their data or simulations, and to most of them, each piece of information matters and helps shape the entire picture of their research. Unfortunately, none of these matters in this 3MT competition. Instead, knowing how to maximize the impact of your research by minimizing the details and focusing on the intended question for investigation will be paramount to the success of the 3MT presentation.
One final point to keep in mind is to decide how much information you should explain when you transition from one idea to another. The audience may not follow you through if you spend too much time on any single idea and do not provide enough or equal amount of time to progress through the whole story in your presentation. On the other hand, if you give too little information from each idea to the next, the audience may lose their attention as well. Thus, knowing how much to explain moving from one idea to another by giving adequate share of information in your presentation.