In the world of business they call it the “elevator pitch”: a short, pithy speech that summarizes the unique aspects of a product or service to interest a potential customer or client. So named because it ideally lasts no longer than the span of an average elevator ride—which the management guru Tom Peters once considered to be two minutes—the purpose of the elevator pitch is to capture and hold someone’s attention in order to sell an idea quickly. Under Peters and others, the elevator pitch became a requisite part of 20th century business.
In the world of science, where verbosity is a practiced, even revered, art, the need to capture and hold someone’s attention in order to quickly sell an idea has never seemed quite as necessary. Yet when taxpayer money is increasingly used to fund research, taxpayers generally expect scientists to communicate briefly the findings of that research in understandable terms. In this expectation, the ability to discuss one’s research succinctly in everyday language can be as equally artful. Enter the Three-Minute Thesis.
A Three-Minute Thesis
The Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) was the brainchild of Alan Lawson, when serving as dean of the graduate school at Australia’s University of Queensland. In 2007, Lawson saw an increasing need for UQ students to communicate their thesis research to non-specialists in a way that was compelling, credible, and, most importantly, concise. He created a university-wide research communication competition where graduate students were challenged to give a 180-second-long oral presentation of the significance of their research discoveries. Consolidating hundreds of pages of technical data into such a brief communication proved challenging, but possible. Drawing 160 PhD students from various disciplines across the university, UQ hosted the first ever 3MT competition in September 2008. The first year’s winner was Michael Imelfort from UQ’s School of Land, Crop and Food Sciences.
3MT competitions are simple and austere. Contestants are allowed the use of a single PowerPoint slide. That slide must be static, that is, no slide transitions, animations, audio, or video of any kind. No costumes, props or musical instruments are allowed and no poetry, singing or rapping is permitted. And, of course, if someone talks for more than 180 seconds, they’re out.
In 2010, seven additional Australian and New Zealand universities joined UQ to create the first Trans-Tasman 3MT event. That Trans-Tasman 3MT has since been expanded to include several Asian universities and the competition renamed the Asia-Pacific 3MT competition. 3MT competitions are now held in 18 countries worldwide at 170 universities, where contestants are judged on their understandability and information content, as well as the level of their engagement with the audience and communication skills such as stage presence, eye contact, and vocal range. The winners of each competition receive research grants generally worth several thousand dollars.
In North America, almost a dozen universities have held or are planning competitions in 2016. A 3MT competition held by the University of Georgia Graduate School for its fifth year just last week drew 58 competitors. On April 6 the ten best went on to present to a full house at Athens Cine, a local theatre, where Tara Bracken, from the Department of Infectious Diseases–College of Veterinary Medicine, took home the top prize. Runner-up was cultural anthropologist June Brawner.
The implications of the Three-Minute Thesis for the public understanding of science could be substantial given that currently, most effort focuses on publishing lengthy, highly technical papers. In a world where mobile computing, social media, and ambient awareness have already changed the nature of everyday communications—and audience attention spans are increasingly Instagram-short—the move toward lucid brevity in scientific communication seems virtually inevitable. The drawback, of course, in communicating with celerity is that many details must be left out of the discourse. Therein lies a risk that the most significant aspect(s) of a scientist’s research might not be communicated in the three minute time period. Ultimately, perhaps there needs to be a less-restrictive emphasis on brevity (5 minutes, 6 minutes, more?) tied to clarity, yet still keeping the spirit of celerity alive and well.
Creating the elevator pitches of science could result in a plethora of new and better interactions between scientists and their publics. For those of us interested in the cultural aspects of scientific communications, the Three-Minute Thesis could offer renewed opportunities for increased explorations of the increasingly dynamic nature of those interactions.