How to deliver an award-winning 3MT presentation
You’re a PhD student, who’s spent countless hours researching and analysing data.
You’ve finally worked up the courage to participate in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition, and after weeks of writing your script, designing your slide, and giving yourself pep-talks in the mirror, it's time to take to the stage and share your 3MT presentation with the world. 💪
But, as the timer begins to count down, you panic.
You’re rushing through your script, fumbling nervously with your hands, and stumbling over words like they’re in a foreign language…
Sound familiar? If so, don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone.
Public speaking can be a daunting experience for even the most seasoned professionals. And it only becomes more challenging when you have just three minutes to do it. 😅
The good news is, there are lots of public speaking tools that you can use to help bring your 3MT presentation to life. And today, we’re going to show you how!
Welcome to the final instalment of our three-part 3MT series, where we focus on the last piece of our 3MT puzzle: the delivery.
In this blog post, we’ll be covering some tips on how to engage your audience using the power of your voice, face, and body. We’ll also break down some examples that we love from award-winning 3MTs from all over the Australia (and the world)!
You may only have three minutes, but here's how to make every second count. ⏰
Practice! Know your script inside out. 🗣️
In your PhD, you might’ve had the opportunity to present your research at seminars, meetings, or conferences in the form of posters and oral presentations. Maybe by now you can ace these presentations with little to no rehearsing, since you can rely on your slides and data to tell a story for you. 👩💻
But in the 3MT, the only thing that you can rely on to tell your story is you. Which is why it’s so important for you to commit your script to memory.
It’s practically impossible to focus on how to deliver your 3MT, if all your attention is fixed on remembering what your next line is supposed to be in the first place. So, our first tip is simple: practice.
Know your script like the back of your hand, so that when you’re on stage, you can devote all that energy into your delivery, rather than into racking your brains to recall what comes next! If memorisation is something you struggle with, we’ve previously spoken about several different memorisation techniques that can help you learn scripts for public speaking events like the 3MT, such as repetition, practicing out loud, and physically writing your script down. 📝
Once you’re confident that you can recite your script in your sleep (and, let’s be honest… sleeping is how us researchers prefer to spend our leisure time 😉), you can start to think about how to deliver it in a way that really makes your presentation shine.
After all, the way you say something is just as important as what you say.
Even if you have the most ground-breaking research and a perfectly crafted script, if your vocal delivery is lacking, your audience might have tuned out before they can take any of it in.
So, to avoid your audience’s eyes glazing over, we’re going to discuss what I like to call the 5 P’s of vocal delivery:
Let’s start with how quickly, or slowly, you should speak – in other words, your pace.
1. Vary your pace 💬
Think back to the last Hollywood blockbuster you watched (maybe it was Ticket to Paradise 😉). Chances are, it had some slow-paced scenes to help expand the plot or build suspense, and some fast-paced scenes to keep things exciting. Together, this combination of slow and fast-paced scenes keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. 🎬
But… what do Hollywood films and the 3MT have in common you might ask?
They both tell stories. And like their cinematic counterparts, changing the pace of your voice throughout your 3MT is one way to keep the audience hooked.
Ideally, to avoid sounding monotone, you should speed up and slow down how fast you talk throughout your 3-minute presentation. To show you what this might look like, I did what researchers do best.
I made some fancy graphs. 😉
You can speed up your pace when you want to evoke excitement, for example, when talking about interesting research findings. Then, you can slow your pace right down when you want to emphasise a point, like some concerning statistics or what your findings mean for the future.
A graph of your 3MT might not look exactly the same as the ones above, but no matter what the overall profile looks like, it should have highs and lows, peaks and dips, to bring about a crescendo of a story!
2. Pause for impact ⏸️
I have, and it can be overwhelming.
It makes us feel overloaded with information, and we walk away not really knowing what to take away from the presentation. 😕
Luckily, there’s a simple way to avoid this, and it involves one single thing:
Aside from adding some ✨drama✨, including pauses during your 3MT provides the audience with some breathing room and gives them time to take in the information. That is, as long as you don’t pause for so long that it becomes an awkward silence. 😂
Generally speaking, a pause of 1.5–3 seconds is enough time for the audience to absorb the information, before you move onto the next part of your talk.
Pauses are very effective when placed after a key idea or concept, to let the gravity of what was said really sink in. Alternatively, they can also be extremely impactful when placed before a key idea; a pause to command attention and imply that what you are about to say is really important.
The impact of pausing is demonstrated really well in this 3MT from 2016 Winner, Joshua Chu-Tan. Go over to 1:01 in their 3MT below, paying attention to the pause after mentioning the devastating side effects of macular degeneration.
As you can see, by including this short period of silence, we can fully comprehend the weight of what is being said, making it much more impactful.
If you’re unsure where pause in your own 3MT, take a look at your script and identify which points you want to emphasise. Then, make sure to include purposeful pauses before or after those sentences to really drive the impact home.
3. Voice projection 📣
With all this being said, pauses won’t matter much if the audience can’t hear what you’re saying in the first place, or conversely, are too busy cringing at your shouting to listen.
Voice projection is another really important component of the vocal delivery for your 3MT.
That is, how loudly or softly you speak.
In many of the best 3MTs, there are sections where the speaker talks relatively softly. Eventually, they build their way to a climax where voice projection is the loudest, usually around the same time that the pace is the fastest. Then, their voice gets quieter again once the pace slows down, when the speaker wants to make the most impact. 🤫
Let’s take a look at an example. At the 1:15 mark below of 2011 3MT Winner, Matthew Thompson, and pay attention to the projection of their voice when they say “They matched a print to the wrong person,” compared to “Mayfield was innocent.”
So, for your 3MT, consider raising your voice just that little bit louder as your pace/excitement increases, and quieten your voice for impact when your pace is slowest to help draw the audience in.
4. Vary your pitch 🎤
It’s another super important aspect of public speaking, and can definitely make or break a presentation. But what do I mean when I say pitch? I’m talking about inflection – how high or low the tone of your voice goes when you speak. (If you’re a music fan, think: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do 🎶).
One common mistake in public speaking is the absence of inflection (or in other words, maintaining the same pitch throughout the entire talk). This is usually what makes presentations feel monotonous, robotic, and well on the way to putting the audience to sleep. 😴
If I were to graph it, it would look something like the one on the left:
Not very exciting, is it?
So how do you avoid this? By now, I might sound like a broken record when I say that variation is key! But by raising and lowering the pitch of your voice, you’ll sound a lot less like a robot, and a lot more like an lively, conversational human being.
To help you with this concept, let’s go through an exercise. Think about your vocal inflection when you ask the question:
You’ll notice that your pitch ends on an upward inflection as you ask this question, and this will be the same for most questions you pose. On the other hand, try saying this sentence out loud:
In this example, you might observe that your pitch has a natural tendency to inflect down. Generally, having a downward inflection at the end of a sentence makes things sound more authoritative and confident, which can be useful for your 3MT to ensure you sound convincing and knowledgeable.
So, by varying your pitch and ending sentences on a downward inflection, you’re one step closer to nailing the vocal delivery of your 3MT.
5. Passion ❤️🔥
And finally, to the last of the 5 P’s, but one of the most important: Passion.
Because emotional monotony can kill a presentation just as easily as vocal monotony. 🪦
In order for the audience to really connect with the presentation, they need to come along on an emotional rollercoaster. They need to feel the highs and lows of your research.
And one of the best ways to do this is to create emotional contrast in your voice. How?
Think about your script, and pinpoint sections where there might be negative emotions involved. For example, jarring statistics in your research area, or potential risks if nothing is done about the problem you are trying to address. In these instances, don’t be afraid to show emotion. When conveying these negative emotions, you can even enhance them by including a downward inflection of your vocal pitch.
On the flip side, when you’re talking about the impact of your research and the great outcomes it may lead to, make your voice match the excitement and hope in your presentation.
The more emotional contrast you can create, the more compelling and memorable your 3MT presentation will be.
Creating emotion in your voice goes hand in hand with creating emotion in your face. And with that, let’s move on from vocal delivery to the next very important aspect: your face!
A typical 3MT script sits at around 450 words, but we can communicate so much without uttering a single one.
Have you ever seen someone smiling or laughing, and suddenly felt compelled to do the same? 😂 That’s because emotions are contagious. And, thankfully, we can use this to our advantage in public speaking, where facial expressions become a powerful tool to communicate with the audience.
1. Facial expressions 😜
In the 3MT, facial expressions are super effective for tapping into the audience’s sense of empathy, encouraging them to feel what you feel. Take a look at each of the following facial expressions, all taken from presentations from past 3MT winners and finalists.
If you look at one of their faces long enough, you might start to feel an emotional response to the facial expression you’re seeing; perhaps start to mirror that emotion yourself. That’s because there’s thought to be an actual biological response when humans observe emotion. Pretty cool right?! 😱
But how do you use these facial expressions to your advantage in your 3MT presentation?
Well, start by reflecting on your script, taking note of which sections trigger positive or negative emotions. For example, if there are certain statistics or gaps in knowledge that are concerning to you, don’t be afraid to furrow your brow or downturn your mouth slightly.
On the other hand, do you mention any exciting findings, or make any lighthearted jokes? In these cases, feel free to smile and show hope in your facial features to reflect this!
Just make sure that the emotions you display match the words you are saying. For example, you wouldn’t say, “Millions of animals die each year due to deforestation,” with a happy, smiling face, would you? 😅 As you can imagine, this incongruence risks making you appear unauthentic or untrustworthy.
So, to sum it up, be authentic. If your facial expression feels forced, it probably looks that way too.
2. Eye contact 👀
They say that eyes are the windows to the soul, so it’s no surprise that eye contact is a major part of public speaking.
Eye contact helps establish a connection with the audience, and can also help you convey confidence and credibility. As tempting as it might seem, try to avoid staring at your slide for the entire three minutes, as this will disconnect you from the audience. Keep your eyes on the people in front of you, and as a general rule of thumb, aim to look at someone different each time you begin a new sentence.
In the world of public speaking, one thing can speak louder than words: body language.
Body language comes in many forms, but today, we’re going to discuss two types that are relevant for the 3MT: hand gestures and using the space around you.
1. Hand gestures 👋
Hand gestures are an important element of body language in the 3MT competition. They can help emphasise key points, engage the audience, and convey enthusiasm for your research. Let’s go through a few examples to show you how!
One very common hand gesture in public speaking is when the hands are open and placed palms up. This is a good hand gesture to use to come across as friendly and conversational.
A similar gesture is when the hands are open, but instead the palms are facing downwards, which helps the speaker appear friendly, confident, and knowledgeable.
This hand gesture, where the the fingers on each hand are pressed together, is commonly referred to as the triangle or the Angela Merkel gesture, and is commonly used to appear authoritative and knowledgeable.
If you refer to your slide at any point in your 3MT presentation, don’t be afraid to point to your slide to help keep the audience engaged and shift their attention where you want it.
Finally, it can also be effective to ‘act out’ gestures with your hands to help make the presentation more dynamic. For example, acting out verbs like ‘throw,’ or counting with your fingers.
So, hopefully we’ve given you some ‘hand-y’ tips for how to effectively use hand gestures to make your presentation more interesting. But… what about the rest of your body?
That’s where our final tip comes in.
2. Using the Space 🪐
Public speaking can be a daunting experience, and you might be tempted to hide behind the lectern to make it all feel a little less… intimidating.
But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you did.
At best, it would risk your presentation being boring, and at worst, it could even give the impression that you’re anxious or unconfident. And perhaps you are… But you don’t have to show it. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? 😉
Using the space around you can be a great way to engage the audience in a more dynamic way and create the impression of confidence. So don't be afraid to walk around the stage! By moving around, you can engage different members of the audience and keep their attention focused on you.
In the below example, you can see how simply moving across the stage at a leisurely pace, then stopping in the centre, makes for a more dynamic and captivating presentation.