Are you thinking of entering the Three Minute Thesis Competition but not sure if its for you?? See our guest blog post from the 2014 Winner, Emma Hodcroft, on how the competition has benefited her.
“How do you stop yourself from being nervous when you talk on stage?” That’s one of the questions I have been asked the most since I entered the 3 Minute Thesis competition. And it never fails to make me smile, because the answer is “I don’t!”
There is a common misconception that to be a good speaker one must not be nervous when speaking, when the truth is that one must simply not ‘look’ nervous. Speaking, as I have learned during my time doing the 3 Minute Thesis in Edinburgh, is a form of acting. When you step before the audience and judges, room lights dimmed and the spotlight on you, a hush falling as the disembodied voice to the left announces your name, it can seem as if your entire body is vibrating from the rushing thump of your heart. You clasp your hands so that nobody will notice them shaking, and try to remember the tips about breathing and focus you’ve learned over the past few weeks, while a voice in your head screams, “Why did you think this was a good idea!?”
But the voice from the left has stopped, and all eyes are on you. It’s time! Take a step forward, balance your weight, square up the audience with your gaze, and turn on your most winning smile. “Remember the last time a cold went around your workplace?…” And we’re off!
As terrifying as this may sound to many reading, it’s the same situation that all researchers will inevitably find themselves in someday, sooner or later, at a lab group, meeting, or conference. In these settings, the pressures and nerves of being in front of many people – the centre of attention – are the same, but with the added stress of knowing you’re presenting and defending your work and research in front of many great minds. Because of this, the focus is often almost entirely on packing as much of your work and results into the 15-slide limit as possible. But being able to communicate your work by presenting it effectively is just as important as the information you’re presenting. If you stumble through your disorganized talk, visibly unsettled and distracting the audience with nervous tics, you’ll have a very hard time convincing them of your data.
The 3 Minute Thesis competition forces you to confront both aspects of good presentations. First, the work itself. Condensing your research into a 3-minute story from background to the importance of your results is no mean feat! Does your talk tell a story? Does it progress logically? Have you explained why your work matters, and what the implications are of your findings? Have you left the audience lost in undefined terms and acronyms? Have you caught their interest by making your talk relevant to them? The 3 Minute Thesis competition takes this to extremes by forcing such a brief time limit and making you present to an educated general audience rather than people who already know the basics of your field. But the aspects of a good presentation are true in both contexts, and in preparing for the 3 Minute Thesis competition, you’re forced to re-think how to lead your audience through your work in a clear and interesting way.
Secondly, the presentation. As you will soon learn once you’ve written out your research story, the memorization is not too difficult. After a few repetitions, you’ll know your talk well. But the repetition itself can be a downfall – do you now sound like a bored schoolchild, reciting a tiresome lesson? Do you rush through your talk, anxious to get off the stage as soon as possible? Do you give your audience time to digest each thought with well-placed pauses? Do you vary your voice, tone, and facial expression to convey your enthusiasm and keep the audience engaged? Are you shifting around nervously or solidly holding your ground? Staring at your feet or confidently surveying the audience?
This may all sound a bit much. “I’m too busy!” you cry, “And I’m doing a PhD – I’ve got enough stress without all this!” But for all the things you learn during a PhD, presentation skills are often not one of them. We PhD students are so engrossed in trying to get the gel to run or the program to compile that we forget that aside from data and publications, presentations are the currency of science. A good presentation can secure a job, a fellowship, or a collaboration. At a conference, it can solidify your place as a respected new researcher in your field.
The 3 Minute Thesis competition is an excellent opportunity to build up a skill that I guarantee will prove invaluable as your scientific career progresses. Yes, it will take a little time and effort – but everything that’s worthwhile does. And I promise you, the line between ‘nervous’ and ‘exhilarating adrenaline rush’ is a very thin one!
So step up to the microphone, take a deep breath – and start!
You can watch Emma’s winning presentation here: Emma Hodcroft
Find out more about the 2015 competition here: 3 Minute Thesis