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Engagement Matters: Top Tips for short talk format research presentations

In this Engagement Matters post, Ceri Harrop shares her top tips for the ever-popular short talk format for presenting research in three minutes.

Researchers of all disciplines often work and study in a communication bubble, where the people around them know and understand the same world, and acronyms and technical jargon become everyday words and concepts. It is only when you are asked, perhaps by a family member, ‘what is it you do?’ and their expression glazes over as you share the details of your research project that it may make you think that perhaps your communications skills need a little refining.

With this in mind, it is little wonder that the popularity of short talk competitions have become significant. Famelab and 3MT, to name but two, are both examples of internationally renowned, short talk competitions with significant prizes and opportunities up for grabs. Prizes and glory aside, the skills gleaned from such an experience are hugely beneficial and applicable to your research career too. Being able to confidently and concisely explain why your research matters is crucial for conference talks, networking, funding bids and job interviews.

So what is it all about? You have just three minutes to present a research concept or idea in an accessible manner. Your audience is non-specialist, and live (meaning they will listen, laugh or yawn accordingly!) You have just you, your voice and the stage. Famelab allows a prop, 3MT allows a single, non-animated PowerPoint slide, but really it all about you and your story.

So where do you start? First of all, forget what you know about giving a scientific presentation. Don’t introduce yourself, don’t acknowledge funders or work colleagues or collaborators. This is about your research and where it fits in the bigger picture. So start with thinking about the answer to ‘why’: Why does your research matter (to you and the world); why should anyone else care? You absolutely have to make it relevant to the audience.

But what else do you need to consider?

The Hook: In just three minutes, you need to hook your audience into the topic immediately. How will you start? What will you use to grab the attention of the audience: a controversial statement, a shocking statistic, a big question. Think of a hook to get you started.

Stories connect us: Telling stories helps to reach peoples hearts and minds. Stories stimulate and engage the human brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience and making it much more likely that the audience will follow you. Think about stories you remember. There are usually one or more key characters. These give audiences something to relate to or care about (or, if used in the opposite way, to dislike). In any case, your audience will want to know what happens to the character so try and include this concept when planning your talk. Make sure you have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Teach something new: The human brain loves novelty. Your research is after all, new. So include an unfamiliar, unusual, or unexpected fact in your talk to offer the audience a new way of looking at your topic.

Bring it to life: Analogies can be a great tool, but make sure everyone can identify with it, or you might just end up complicating the situation. Keep it simple. Use imagery, not measurements. If you want to describe the size of bacteria, don’t use micrometres. Instead, say that a million of them could fit on a pinhead.

Voice is key: You need to sound interested in the topic, or else why would the audience be? Confidence is the one sticking point for almost everyone attempting to do any type of public speaking. In fact, people are more scared of public speaking than dying! Really it about practice, practice, practice. This will make you more confident in yourself, the content of your talk and the sound of your own voice out loud.

Dare I say it, but have fun! It is a great opportunity to share your research with a new audience and develop new skills. Go for it!

Posted on behalf of Ceri Harrop, Public Programmes Manager, Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, The University of Manchester

Twitter: @UoMEngage | @sheencr  | #EngageMatters

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