How to write a winning 3MT script

80,000.


That’s how many words are in a typical PhD thesis. Years of gruelling research, sleepless nights, and history-making breakthroughs… culminated into one VERY thick book. To present something of this scale would take you approximately 9 hours. 🤯


Scientist public speaking at a lectern in front of a giant book filled with text and graphs. Text reads: Thesis

But what do you do when you only have 3 minutes? ⏰


Well, that’s exactly what thousands of PhD students worldwide do each year in the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition. Not only do they explain their super complex research in the time it takes to make a coffee, but they do it in a way that can be understood by a non-specialist audience.


But we know what you’re thinking…


Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe looking confused and saying, “Impossible”

So, how do you even win a competition like that? Well first of all, you’re going to need a 3MT script. And we’re about to teach you how to write a WINNING one. 🏅


Not only that, but this blog post marks the beginning of a multi-part series that will cover all the important aspects of preparing a winning 3MT – from writing a captivating speech, to creating an effective slide, and of course, nailing your delivery.


But first…



What is the 3MT competition?


The Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) Competition is an annual public speaking competition, where PhD candidates describe the impact and scope of their research in 3 minutes to a non-specialist audience. It was launched by the University of Queensland in 2008 and has since gained traction in over 85 countries around the world! 🌍


Put simply, it’s a fancy elevator pitch. Just imagine that it’s a really slow elevator.


Businessman waiting at an elevator, which opens to reveal a staircase. The confused businessman cautiously ascends the stairs.
A three-minute elevator pitch? Maybe I’ll just take the stairs…

Like any good competition, the 3MT has some rules. Here’s a run-down of some of the big ones:



Rules of the 3MT® competition:


  • You must use a single static PowerPoint slide with no transitions or animations.

  • You are limited to 3 minutes maximum. Competitors exceeding 3 minutes are disqualified.

  • Presentations are to be spoken word (e.g. no poems, raps or songs)… Sorry to all the aspiring rapper-researchers out there.


You can find a comprehensive list of the rules on the official UQ 3MT website.


Well, now that’s out of the way, let’s get into our tips on how to write a winning 3MT script! In this article, I’ll discuss some strategies that I used to craft my own winning 3MT script, but I’ve also watched lots of other award-winning 3MT presentations and identified some common features they share, so that you don’t have to. 😉



#1: The hook 🪝


Every great 3MT presentation starts off with an attention-grabbing opener, otherwise known as ‘the hook.’ It’s a storytelling essential, and is undoubtedly one of the most important components of the 3MT script.


An orange fish looking enticingly at a worm on a fishing hook under water. The hook is tied to a label with text. Text reads: Attention Grabber.
The hook is about enticing the audience to take that first bite.

One clever way to hook the audience in a 3MT presentation is to start off by asking a question, which creates a sense of open dialogue with the listener. For instance, these 3MT finalists began their presentations by asking:


Excerpts from 3MT examples. Text reads: “Did you grow up in a picture perfect family?” (Sarah Mokrzycki, 2021 Asia-Pacific Finalist, Victoria University) ”What does your breath say about you?” (Merryn Baker, 2022 Asia-Pacific Finalist, UNSW)

Full videos: Sarah Mokrzycki | Merryn Baker


You can see how the simple act of asking a question makes us reflect on our own personal views and encourages us to engage with the presentation. 💭 Another way to achieve a similar effect is to begin your talk by prompting the audience to act. An effective example of this is presented here:


Excerpt from 3MT example. Text reads: “I want you to tip your head back all the way… now swallow. It’s an uncomfortable, almost impossible feeling, isn’t it?” (Amanda Khamis, 2022 Asia-Pacific Runner Up, University of Sydney)

Full video: Amanda Khamis


Prompting the listener to act is a powerful way to immerse the audience into a particular scenario by making use of their senses. It can be easily achieved by asking the audience to look around the room, visualise a scene using their imagination, or simply taking a deep breath. 😮‍💨


Finally, several fantastic 3MT presentations also begin with a hook that startles the reader by making an unusual, interesting, or thought-provoking statement. This can be done numerous ways, such as through the use of:


  1. Oxymoron: A figure of speech that combines two contradicting words (i.e., ‘deafening silence’ and ‘old news’).

  2. Paradox: A self-contradictory statement that may actually be true (i.e., ‘less is more’).

  3. Irony: Use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning (i.e., telling a rude customer to ‘have a nice day’).


Here are some good 3MT examples where the presenter has opened with a startling hook:


Excerpts from 3MT examples. Text reads: “The opposite of black is yellow.” (Sophie Jano, 2021, University of South Australia Runner-Up) ”I wonder why you’re listening, and what’s going to keep you listening for the next 2 minutes and 55 seconds of your life.” (Kylie Sturgess, 2020 Asia-Pacific Finalist, Murdoch University)

Full videos: Sophie Jano | Kylie Sturgess


The success of this technique arises from its element of surprise, which keeps the listener intrigued and curious. Basically, the more shocking or unexpected the hook, the better. 😲


However, with all this being said, there’s certainly no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to begin your 3MT, and that’s the beauty of creativity. But in case you’re stuck for ideas, here are a few sentence starters to give you some inspiration for creating a compelling hook for your 3MT script:


Sentence starter ideas for the 3MT Hook. Text reads: What if I told you… Think about the last time you… How many of you… Imagine that… Take a look at… Did you know…

Once you’ve got the crowd hooked, it’s a prime opportunity to reel them in for your story. 📖



#2: Tell a story


An open book in front of a variety of scientific illustrations.

If you watch all the award-winning 3MT presentations, you’ll notice that they have one thing in common: they all tell a story. And they do it well.


But how do we turn our own complex, and often niche, research into a compelling story? Well, thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can stand on the shoulders of SciComm giants... 👣


No one is more of an expert at the ins and outs of storytelling than Dr Randy Olson; scientist-turned-filmmaker, and co-author of the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking (a.k.a. our SciComm holy bible). Many of the principles discussed in this section come straight from this remarkable work, which made it to our top 5 must-read science communication books. 📚


As we know from pretty much every Hollywood blockbuster, all good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In Connection, Randy further develops this idea by outlining what he calls the ‘ABT Template’, which stands for ‘And, But, Therefore.’ These represent the three key components that make up every good story. We’ve talked about the ABT template before, and how it can be used to elevate your storytelling. But, in case you missed it, I’ll use my own research as an example as we work through this concept.


Typically, in the beginning of a story, there’s some exposition. These are facts that help set the scene and ensure that the speaker and audience are all on the same page (pun intended). 😉 These facts can be connected using the word AND. For example:


“Cancer is deadly and traditional chemotherapy is one treatment option.”

Any statements we connect with ‘and’ are typically things that everyone would agree with, so you can quality-check your ‘and’ section by making sure you agree with all the facts you are connecting.


Okay, so we’ve set the scene. But this isn’t really a story yet, is it? The actual story doesn’t begin until there’s a source of tension or conflict, and the simplest word to make this happen is the word BUT:


“Cancer is deadly and traditional chemotherapy is one treatment option, but it comes with a lot of side effects.”

You can see that the ‘but’ is what makes things interesting. It’s what keeps the audience wanting more and makes them ask “Well, what happens next?”


It doesn’t have to be the word ‘but’ either – there are a lot of words that essentially do the same thing, such as however, although, except, and unfortunately, to name a few… (The thesaurus could be your best friend here). What these words have in common is that they create this critical sense of tension.


Following this, is the outcome, which is where the THEREFORE comes in.


“Cancer is deadly and chemotherapy is one treatment option, but it comes with a lot of side effects. Therefore, in our research, we load these drugs into tiny carriers called nanoparticles, which can help to reduce their adverse effects.”

‘Therefore’ is the word that brings everything together. It marks the beginning of a journey of discovery, which eventually leads to the resolution.


You can see how, by simply including these three key words: and, but and therefore, we have generated the foundations of a good story. Your 3MT script will obviously need to be longer than two sentences, but the ABT template provides a useful scaffold that you can build from to ensure that your story is compelling. If you’re interested in reading more on the ABT template and how it can be utilised, make sure to give Connection a read. 📖


To help you shape your story using the ABT template, here are some questions you can aim to answer in the beginning, middle, and end of your 3MT script:


A checkpoint roadmap for the 3MT structure according to the ABT Template, including question prompts.

Hopefully this outline can help you create a captivating and persuasive story to communicate your research effectively. Because, in the wise words of Dr Randy Olson, “Tell a good story and the whole world will listen.”


So, we’ve got our story. But what other strategies can we use to make it a little more interesting? Let’s unpack our storytelling toolkit to see how we can spice things up. 🌶



#3: Your storytelling toolkit: analogies, humour & creation of a character


Top-down view of an open toolbox with three spanners inside, each labelled with bold text. Text reads: Analogies, Humour & Character

In addition to using the ABT template to write a compelling narrative structure, there are also several other tools that you can use to connect with your audience and make your story as easy to understand as possible.


One powerful way to do this is to relate your research to a more common experience by using an analogy. Analogies allow us to compare similarities between two seemingly different things. For instance, when I did the 3MT, I used an analogy to compare nanoparticles – a topic that’s not very common – to cars, something that almost everyone is familiar with:


Left: A blood vessel with an enlarged section to show a diagram of a drug-loaded nanoparticle. Right: A road with an enlarged image of passengers in the car.

Full video: Cintya Dharmayanti


As you can see, this works because the analogy serves to provide a simpler, more easily understood explanation using concepts and examples from everyday life. 🚗


Besides analogies, another useful tool to create a captivating story is the use of humour. Because who doesn’t like a good laugh, right? 😂 Comedic relief can help you create a bond with the listener and provide some emotional reprieve for what may otherwise be a serious presentation.


Humour is used well in this winning 3MT presentation:


Excerpt from 3MT example. Text reads: “Which is stronger: the land, or the sea? The sea of course! It has so many mussels.” (Trevyn Toone, 2022 Asia-Pacific Winner, University of Auckland)

Full video: Trevyn Toone


In this example, humour helps to keep us engaged with the presentation and gives us a good impression of the presenter. However, some care does need to be taken with the use of humour, so as to not devalue the presentation. Don’t worry if you’re not a comedian though (or if your research topics are too grim to joke about), there are still other effective ways to make your story shine.


Yellow caution sign with text. Text reads: CAUTION. Care must be taken with the use of humour in the 3MT.

Some of the most immersive 3MTs are those that introduce a character, fictional or not, and follow that character’s story. This is a particularly useful tool if your research involves a topic that strikes a strong emotional response. The following example executed this well, where the speaker refers to a photo of an adorable young infant with a feeding tube:


Excerpt from 3MT example. Text reads: “I bet you’re wondering who this little cutie is. This is James. James has cerebral palsy and dysphagia. My PhD is testing which treatments best help babies like James to eat and drink.” (Amanda Khamis, 2022 Asia-Pacific Runner-Up, University of Sydney)

Full video: Amanda Khamis


This is so effective because it encourages us to empathise with the character and persuades us to see the importance of the presenter’s research. Whether it’s analogies, humour, or the creation of a character, there are lots of ways to make your story relatable and more easily understood.


Now that we’ve got some ideas from our storytelling toolkit, let’s move on! 🙌



#4: Goodbye technical jargon 👋


Open trash can surrounded by flies and examples of technical jargon.

Imagine being in a different country, where you don’t speak the native language. You’re chatting with a local, but they can’t speak your language very fluently. The conversation is interspersed with foreign words that you can’t quite understand, so the meaning of the exchange ultimately becomes lost.


Confused woman surrounded by mathematical expressions meme..
Audience attempting to understand jargon-filled 3MT presentation (2022, colourised).

That’s what it’s like trying to understand complex research when it’s filled with terminology and jargon only an expert in that field would know. 🤓


Remember that the 3MT is for a non-specialist audience, which is very different to a conference presentation that’s mostly filled with experts in the field. As scientists, it’s our job to make sure that we are speaking the same language as our audience, and for the 3MT, that means avoiding the use of language that’s too niche or technical. We can still explain complex concepts using language that’s easy to understand!


But how do you do that, when you’ve spent years in academia doing the opposite? 😅


The best way to avoid the overuse of jargon is to simply seek the help of a non-specialist. Ask someone that’s not in your field of research to listen to your presentation and provide feedback. Perhaps this is a friend, family, or fellow student from a completely different department. Does your story make sense to them? If not, it probably won’t make sense to many people in the 3MT audience.


I remember when I was preparing my 3MT script, I went through this exact process! Reading it aloud to my mum, sister, and pretty much anyone who would listen, to make sure each sentence was easy to follow and understand. It’s actually what helped me come up with the idea of the car- analogy in the first place! So, keep iterating and tweaking your presentation until it makes sense to the mailman, the bus driver, and the neighbour down the road.


Also, make sure to keep your story focused on the big picture, rather than getting bogged down in the details and data. Not only will this make your presentation hard to understand, but it’s also more likely to make it B.O.R.I.N.G. and lead to blank stares!


When you’ve ticked all these boxes – great! You’re ready to move on.



#5: The finisher: Coming full circle


Good job! You’re almost done. Time to add the finishing touch. We can all agree that a strong finish makes for a more memorable presentation. One trend that’s very common amongst winning 3MT presentations is the way that they finish: by bringing their story full circle. As the name suggests, this essentially means that the presenter refers back to the beginning of the story, especially if a particular character, scenario, or analogy is used.


A circular diagram describing the 3MT story structure.

For instance, in this winning 3MT example, the presentation begins with:


Excerpt from 3MT example. Text reads: “I love the moon. Wouldn’t it be cool to live there? I want to build a house, with a deck, and a decent view… the Earth.”

Then, as the presentation comes to a close, the final segment ends by referring back to the opening sentence:


Excerpt from 3MT example. Text reads: “So… next time you’re out at night, I want you to look for the. moon. It’s normally up,  sometimes slightly sideways, and just think about what you’re seeing… Think about the intense sunlight up there, the lack of air, the vacuum… and the fact that despite those things, maybe we could live there. Maybe in a house, maybe with a deck, with what is, let’s be honest, a pretty awesome view.” (Matthew Shaw, 2021 Asia-Pacific Winner, Swinburne University of Technology

Full video: Matthew Shaw


By bringing the story full circle, the audience gains a sense of satisfaction and closure as the cycle returns to its beginnings and the status quo is restored.



Take-away messages


The thought of distilling years of research down to just 3 minutes can be daunting, especially when it’s a competition. 😰 However, if you:


  1. Create an attention-grabbing hook

  2. Tell a captivating story using the ABT template

  3. Use tools such as analogies, humour, and characters

  4. Get rid of technical jargon, and

  5. Bring your story full circle


You’re well on your way to writing a fantastic 3MT script! So, what are you waiting for? Let’s tell your story. Time is ticking. 😉⏰


And remember – if you want to further master your storytelling and public speaking skills, we’d love to show you how in one of our online or in-person science communication workshops.


Feel free to contact us to find out more!



Authors

Cintya Dharmayanti

Dr Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Tullio Rossi


Illustration

Alvin Yanga



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