Communicating research findings to diverse audiences is essential not only to convey the impact of science to the general public and promote research funding, but also to inspire children and inform young students about career paths in science. That’s why being a good communicator is a skill that each of us, from grad student to professor, should seek to master. However, explaining the aim of a research project to a non-specialized audience can be a tricky task. Science needs to be made understandable without being oversimplified while avoiding technical jargon.
Back in 2008, the University of Queensland set up the 3-minute thesis competition (3MT®, http://threeminutethesis.org/index.html). As the name suggests, graduate students are challenged to present their PhD research project to an audience of diverse backgrounds in 3 minutes. The rules are simple: 3 minutes and a single PowerPoint slide to effectively introduce a complex research project and engage the audience. The competition has spread to universities across Australia, New Zealand, the US and now has reached French-speaking countries (http://mt180.fr/). The topics are very diverse and include biological sciences, mathematics, economics and philosophy (see examples below). I was particularly impressed by Adrien Deliege’s presentation from Liège University, Belgium. Adrien is a student in Applied Mathematics who works on El Niño, a natural warming event that occurs every 3 to 5 years and causes natural disasters. Adrien explained how he is developing mathematical tools and computer programs to forecast “El Niño”, based on past temperature recordings in the Pacific Ocean. He compares the recordings to the melody of a song and describes how he is using mathematics to extract its notes in order to be able to not only play the song, but also predict what the next notes will be (i.e. ocean temperature). Could you have guessed that the title of his thesis was “Climate time series analysis based on wavelets”?
I believe that this 3-minute presentation challenge is a good exercise to practice the art of concisely explaining a scientific project, and to develop good communication skills. The content of such a presentation has the advantage of being usable in different settings, such as in an interview, a press release, a pitch to philanthropists, or as an as an elevator pitch for networking events.
SPEaC has also been working to help scientists improve their “elevator pitches” about their research. For example, we recently held an improv workshop to get scientists to relax, listen, and open up to their audiences. We have also been co-hosting Science After Dark, a series of workshops leading up to a presentation competition with the goal of simplifying scientific concepts and making them more attractive to a general audience. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hear more about our efforts to improve science communication. In the meantime, what would your 3-minute presentation look like? If you have entered a competition like this, please let us know!
Editor: Cyndi Morales