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How to design an impactful 3MT slide (with examples!)


things going into a funnel to make a 3MT slide

What can you do in three minutes? Brush your teeth, make a coffee?


How about explain your entire PhD thesis? 😅


Believe it or not, that’s what thousands of people do each year in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®); a global public speaking competition where PhD students explain the scope and impact of their research in, you guessed it, just three minutes. ⏰


And if you’re reading this, perhaps you’re an aspiring 3MT-er yourself, on the hunt for some inspiration to design an impactful 3MT slide to accompany your talk.


Sound like you? Then you’ve come to the right place.


welcome gif showman

Previously, we gave you some tips and tricks on how to write a winning 3MT script, but in this instalment of our 3MT series, we’re switching gears to cover another very important aspect:


The slide.

little girl going down a slide

We’ve trawled the internet to discover what actually makes a good three minute thesis slide, and in this blog, we’ll cover some do’s and don’ts to help you design one that’s memorable and impactful. To help bring these concepts home, we’ll also include some examples that we love from past 3MT winners and finalists.


But before we do that, let’s recap some important rules related to the 3MT slide:


3MT slide rules

So, in short, the 3MT slide obviously needs to be fairly simple. But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.


Hold up… if the 3MT is a public speaking competition, why is the slide even important? Surely only what you speak about matters, right? WRONG! 🙅‍♀️


The 3MT competition is about so much more than just what you say. It’s also about what you do and what you show And what you show during your 3MT is where your nifty little slide comes in.


Not only is the PowerPoint slide a key component of the 3MT judging criteria, it also helps create a lasting mental image for the judges. After all, you can’t win the 3MT if the audience and judges can’t even remember what your research is about!


So, hopefully we’ve been able to convince you about just how important having a good slide is. But how do you design an impactful 3MT slide, you ask?


Well, here are 5 of our top tips:



Tip #1: Avoid data dumping 📊


You might be familiar with those boring old PowerPoint presentations that seem to appear at every conference. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones cluttered with complex graphs, huge tables, and enough numbers to put even the most experienced professors to sleep.


May I present to you… Exhibit A:


My PhD research example slide

Look familiar? Good. Now lock the memory away in a distant room of your mind palace, because that’s exactly what you DON’T want in a 3MT slide (or really, in any slide for that matter…)


Unlike a conference presentation, your 3MT slide should simply act to enhance and complement your script, rather than be used to display complex data and graphs. In fact, I would suggest avoiding the use of any complex graphs and data tables at all, because they just end up detracting attention from what you’re saying.


If you choose to present some important data or statistics in your 3MT slide, consider swapping out graphs with simple infographics, like pie charts or diagrams:


an image displaying From This to This turning a graph into an infographic of a salad bowl

From this to This, showing a table turning into a geographical map infographic

As you can see, simple infographics and eye-catching figures are a much more visually stimulating way to present information, especially compared to data-heavy graphs and tables. And they’re surprisingly easy to make using tools like Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Express.


So, if in doubt, leave complex data out. 🚫


In fact, you’ll find that most successful 3MT-ers show little to no data at all in their slides and intentionally keep them very conceptual, which brings me to tip #2.



Tip #2: Keep it conceptual 💡


Perhaps you’re sensing a general theme here… that typically less is more when it comes to a 3MT slide. This allows the focus of the presentation to be on the speaker, the slide simply acting as a visual aid to complement the story. And when it’s a public speaking competition, I’d say that’s pretty important.


In our humble opinion, some of the most effective and memorable 3MT slides are those that present an image or diagram that conveys a single underpinning concept or idea.


You might recall from our How to Write a Winning 3MT Script blog post, that many successful 3MT scripts incorporate things like humour, analogies, or fictional characters. In these situations, it can be helpful for the contents of the slide to reflect this.


One of my favourite examples of this comes from 2016 Asia-Pacific 3MT Winner, Joshua Chu-Tan, who spoke about his research on gene therapy treatments for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) to target the root of vision loss. In his winning presentation, he says:


quote for Joshua Chu-Tan, winner of 3MT, about age-related macular degeneration
Joshua Chu-Tan, 2016, Asia-Pacific 3MT Winner, Australian National University

Rather than using complex diagrams to show the theory, he opted for this simple, yet extremely powerful image that highlights the impact of vision loss from age-related macular degeneration. And, seeing as this image has stuck in my memory for years, I’d say it was a pretty good choice.


As another example, back when I won the 3MT, I used an analogy to draw parallels between A) cars carrying passengers on a highway, and B) nanoparticles carrying drugs along a blood vessel. So, my 3MT slide portrayed a busy highway with signage to show which hypothetical organs the cars were headed towards:


3MT quote from Cintya Dharmayanti, 3MT winner, about nanoparticles being tiny carriers on a highway
Cintya Dharmayanti, 2021, University of South Australia 3MT Winner

Basically, the overarching message is to keep it simple.


And that’s all well and good… But where do you even start?


Your first step is to write your 3MT script. Then, once you have your script prepared, use it as a tool to help you brainstorm ideas for your slide. Note whether you’ve used any analogies, introduced any characters, or covered certain concepts, and then based on this information, find or create a visual to match! 🖼 This might be a little different to your usual scientific presentations, where you would normally prepare your slides first, then come up with what you are going to say after, but trust me – it works!



Tip #3: Choose an eye-catching visual… or make one 👀


In the same way that the hook’ in your 3MT script helps to pique the audience’s attention, the slide is another important tool to capture their attention and keep them engaged. But to do this, it needs to be eye-catching and interesting.


We’ve noticed that most winning 3MTs have slides that generally fall under one of two categories: images or diagrams.


Images

These are usually photographs or illustrations that complement the script in some way — containing a reference to the concept, analogy or character(s) that were introduced in the script.


For example, let’s say you introduced a fictional character in your 3MT script. By visually showing this character in your slide, it helps the audience form a connection with them and taps into their sense of empathy. Let’s look at an example:


Amanda Khamis, 3MT winner, on treatments for babies with cerebral palsy
Amanda Khamis, 2022, Asia-Pacific 3MT Runner-Up, University of Sydney

As you can see, using this photograph makes for a really effective and impactful slide because it elicits a strong emotional response. Come on… how can you not love that adorable little face, right? 🥺


However, the images don’t have to be of people to be effective – they can also be more conceptual.


For instance, one 3MT finalist spoke about their research on detecting diseases, like cancer, based on characteristic molecules present in the breath. In their slide, they showed an illustration of breath molecules exiting the lungs and mouth to be caught in a net:


Merryn Baker, 3MT winner, quote about a material that can capture molecules from the breath like a net
Merryn Baker, 2022, Asia-Pacific 3MT Finalist, University of New South Wales

Not only is this image a great reference to the net analogy used, but we (as the audience) are able to get a basic idea about the research concept based on the slide alone, which really helps it stick in our memory!


Of course, while we’ve highlighted some great examples, you should choose whatever image speaks to you and your research. Some useful resources to find images for your 3MT slide include iStock Photo and Adobe Stock Photos (making sure to provide attribution where required), or you can even be extra creative and take your own photo, or create your own image! 📸




Diagrams


Aside from images, schematic diagrams can be another great way to conceptualise and visualise your research. However, to be effective as 3MT slides, the diagrams need to be simple and easy to understand.


Ideally, they should be short, and the outcomes immediately recognisable. Avoid using complex diagrams that you’ve directly copy-pasted from a paper, as these generally take a lot more time and concentration to understand.


A good example of a diagram for a 3MT slide was used by the 2020 Asia-Pacific 3MT winner, whose research focused on the development of a liquid glue to help measure electrical signals from plants as a way to measure their health:


example slide from Luo Yifei, 3MT winner, about developing a liquid glue that can detect plant electrical signals
Luo Yifei, 2020, Asia-Pacific 3MT Winner, Nanyang Technological University Singapore

In this example, it’s easy to understand what the research is about, what’s being measured, and what the desired outcomes are, thanks to the clear illustrations and emotive flower drawings.


So, if done well, diagrams can be a really powerful tool to conceptualise your research. If you want to try and create one yourself, there are lots of useful tools you can use, like Adobe Illustrator, Canva, or BioRender, to name a few.


Get creative!




Tip #4: Minimise text 💬


When it comes to presentations, there’s nothing worse than being in the audience, staring at a PowerPoint slide, only to find a wall of text staring back at you. Not only is it super distracting, but aesthetically, it also leaves much to be desired.


spongebob fish falling asleep gif

And let’s be honest, if the audience is reading your slide, then they’re not listening to you… and vice versa. Which, for the 3MT, is a very big problem.


To prevent this, try to avoid including large bodies of text on your 3MT slide. See if you can verbally communicate the information instead, or alternatively, replace the text with an image that conveys the same message. After all, they say a picture speaks a thousand words.

If you really need to include some text, as in the case of simple diagrams, try to keep it to a minimum and limit yourself to 15 words maximum.


Any text you do include should use a font size that can be easily seen from the back of the room (i.e., 24 pt. minimum). And, while they sometimes have their time and place, try to avoid using any cursive, funky, or hard-to-read fonts. Comic sans, I’m looking at you. 😒




Tip #5: Negative space is your friend 🔲


You might be tempted to fill every visible inch of your PowerPoint slide with images, diagrams, or just something to compensate for the very little time you have to present your 3MT.


Though, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you did, because a little negative space can go a long way towards designing a great 3MT slide.


But what is negative space? Put simply, it’s the empty space around and between objects.


explaining negative space. the black plant is the main focal point, while the orange background represents negative space

Leaving some negative space in your slide gives the audience some breathing room and helps them focus on what’s important.


For photographs, this might mean choosing an image that has one focal point. This doesn’t necessarily mean the background needs to be plain, but it may simply be out of focus to allow the objects in the forefront to stand out.


For diagrams, this means leaving some empty space between sections so that there’s a clearer distinction between them, or reducing the number of sections entirely.


Here are some great examples of 3MT slides that use negative space to draw our attention to a particular person or object:


Baby crying
Joshua Robinson, 2022, Asia-Pacific 3MT Finalist, The University of Adelaide

View of the Earth from the Moon
Matthew Shaw, 2021, Asia-Pacific 3MT Winner, Swinburne University of Technology

By leaving some negative space, our eyes are immediately drawn to one particular focal point, letting us focus on what’s important: You.




The take-home message 📝


And that brings us to the end of the second blog for our 3MT series!


The 3MT slide can truly make or break a 3MT presentation, but the right one can take it to the next level. And, by following these simple tips, you’re well on your way to designing a slide that captures your research in an effective and impactful way:


  1. Avoid complex graphs and data

  2. Keep it conceptual

  3. Choose an eye-catching image or diagram, or make one

  4. Keep text to a minimum, and

  5. Don’t be afraid of negative space


So get creative! And remember, if you want to learn more about how to create amazing graphics, or how to up your public speaking skills, we’d love to show you how in our in-person science communication workshops or online courses!


Contact us here to find out more. 🤩



Authors

Cintya Dharmayanti

Dr Tullio Rossi



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