Reflections by Rune Rattenborg, one of the finalists of the Three-Minute Thesis competition

Working with a part of human history hard to find even in the most voluminous general reader, I have grown accustomed to communicating my research to academic peers and specialists. Not so with the Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT), put together by the Centre for Academic, Researcher and Organisation Development (CAROD) of Durham University! For the initial heat, I found myself having to explain the peculiarities of historical documents some 4,000 years old to an audience drawn from education, business, earth science, astrophysics and English literature. And that, if you haven’t tried it before, is hard. Surprisingly enough, it’s also quite fun!

I stumbled onto the 3MT thinking that I had a fairly good idea what my research project was about. Seeing that I am currently finishing up my final draft after more than three years in Durham, I suppose that I’d better. But thinking about how to communicate my work to a non-specialist within a matter of minutes was never something that really came up in supervision meetings or in workshops. In that sense, three minute talks are a great way to make you think again about what makes your work important, and to whom.

Communicating your research to a general audience in a matter of minutes is not just about throwing catchy one-liners. You are building an argument, yet a simple, convincing, and coherent one. You are doing so without jargon, having to accept that you don’t have the room or the time to go back and explain what this or that exotic term just meant. And most importantly, you get to point out, in the clearest of words, what it is that you are actually doing, where it leads you, and why the people listening should even care.

At least, that was the initial challenge. Merely applying to participate requires you to summarise your doctoral thesis in 50 words. Which more or less equals this and the preceding two sentences, plus a couple of carefully balanced adjectives in strategic locations. Then comes working up what you are going to say. In three minutes, you have something like 350 words. No more than that. Enough for a regular conference abstract, or all of the words in this blog posting until now. You have got one slide with no moving parts, and otherwise you are on your own. You can’t bring costumes, friends, or deliver your presentation in a musical or lyrical form. Dancing, which I briefly considered, is also banned.

My fellow postgraduates generally consider me an academic chatterbox. In that regard, 3MT taught me a lot about sticking to a clearly defined storyline, and to level with my audience in a way that is not usually an integral part of average conference presentations. You have to engage your listener much faster, get to the point early on, and make sure that they are with you all the way. Most importantly, it made me better at understanding my own line of research from a general perspective, to understand how my work relates to areas that I would not usually think about at all back at my department desk, and to formulate that in a concise and engaging manner.

On the other side of the university finals, I still think that 3MT competitions is definitely worth trying out (even though I didn’t win). Next to fellow postgraduate students presenting on everything from dark matter to ice cores and shadow education policy, I’ve come to understand that any research topic, including my own, can and should be tried out in a format like this. Doing so, you come to realise that anything, no matter how nerdy it may seem at first glance, can be made interesting to a general audience. It’s merely a question of thinking it through.

Durham University offers numerous programmes to develop your general skills, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This kind of training is important, not only to sharpen your ability to communicate, interact, and engage with the wider public, but also, I find, because it stimulates new or innovative perspectives on your professional, academic work. Participating in the 3MT certainly gave me plenty of new insights on my own.