The importance of being interesting



One of the hardest parts of my job here at ANU is being responsible for ANU’s participation in the Three minute thesis competition.

Just in case you have just joined PhD land, the 3MT is an international competition for PhD students with only a couple of simple rules. You have to tell a non-academic audience what your research is about, how you are doing it and why anyone should care – in just three minutes. Just to make it harder, you are only allowed one slide as a presentation aide – no animations, no transitions, no sounds, no costumes or musical instruments (just in case you were wondering).

In theory it shouldn’t be difficult to persuade research candidates to participate in this competition – there’s a lot of prize money on offer after all. In practice however, it’s very hard to get people to engage.

My team and I spend about 6 months of the year marketing the hell out of this competition. We pepper PhD candidates and their supervisors with messages selling the many benefits of participating. We prepare a special training series with specialists like speech writers, performance coaches to get a perfect script and even a graphic designer to help them with that one slide.

Despite our best efforts however, the vast majority of PhD students at ANU don’t take up the challenge.

I understand the reluctance, I really do. Brevity is hard. Blaise Pascal (or so the story goes) nailed the difficulty of being succinct when he wrote to a friend:

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

But I don’t believe it’s the difficulty that really puts our PhD students off – they are doing a PhD after all. I think the reasons are cultural.

Academia is highly competitive, but we don’t like to talk about it that way. The contest of ideas is not the sort where there is an actual winner. That kind of contest belongs to sport, not academia, and let’s face it, most of us got here by not being very good at sports. Add to this the 3MT’s stated aim is to ‘sell’ research to the general public. The emphasis here is on the sizzle, not the sausage and this can be viewed as a little, well – academically unsavoury.

I’m indebted to ANU PhD student, Annie McCarthy for writing this thoughtful piece, which questions the three minute thesis talk as an emerging genre. Annie is disturbed by how the 3MT can position research and researchers as heroes:

“What simultaneously fascinates and repulses me about the three minute thesis competition is the way the language of ‘relevance’ is interpreted by participants and judges alike, or to put it simply: how many of us are going to save the world with our research.”

I’m not sure I totally agree with Annie there. The best 3MT presentations, such as this one by Barlarka Banerjee, let the research speak for itself. However I do share her discomfort with the idea that the 3MT is only for junior scholars:

“Everytime I hear a senior academic speak about the competition they all say something like ‘I could never talk about my research in three minutes.’ Which begs the question ‘why the hell not?’ and the secondary question of ‘is that because its actually impossible?’ And if thats the case what kind of dichotomy is the three minute thesis setting up, on the one hand confining senior academics to the land of waffling obscurity and young graduate students to the fast lane of the commercially viable drive through takeaway. “

Annie’s critique was spot on and got us thinking about the importance of role models. So this year we asked our own Nobel prize winning Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, to do his three minute thesis at our 3MT launch event. He didn’t quite make the time limit, proving that the 3MT is difficult, even for highly experienced speakers, but he came very close.

The video is worth watching for what he says about the value of this kind of communication skill and how it has helped his research career:

I am in unashamed Brian Schmidt #fangirl, but you have to admit it’s impressive he was a) willing and b) able to do it. If someone that busy can take time out of his schedule to do it, surely anyone can?

I’ve been running 3MT competitions for 6 years and, although it’s stressful and difficult, I believe it’s work worth doing. The skills it targets are so vital. Brian makes the point in this video that a successful career as a researcher depends on more than just smarts. You have to be able to sell yourself and your research to others – even other academics.

And this is where I have a slight problem with the 3MT as a concept – three minutes is too long.

Yes, you heard me right. Consider the academic conference or seminar tea table. “What is your research about?” is the most common conversational opener. This is small talk – not an invitation to give a lecture as some people seem to assume. In order to be able to function at a basic social level in academia it’s vitally important that you can do this in one sentence – and make it count so that people want to talk to you more. Talking builds connections and connections build careers.

The trick is to have a sentence intriguing enough to help the rest of the conversation unfold. While I was doing my PhD my one sentence would be: “I’m studying how architects talk with their hands”. My research was about how hand gestures are used by teachers and students in architecture classrooms, but that didn’t sound very interesting. By using the word ‘talk’ I put the emphasis back on communication.

My sentence about my current research is “I’m trying to teach machines how to read job advertisements”. The research is using natural language processing algorithms, but many people don’t know what that is. The computer scientists I work with call the final product ‘the machine’, so I have picked up on that language instead.

I’m deliberately being a bit of a tease with this new one liner – I’m not really trying to explain what I am doing, but give people an easy opening to ask questions if they want to. It’s also meant to make people think I am an interesting person doing interesting research. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about communications is that people will not remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. Being interesting is an important, but little recognised, cultural asset for a researcher.

I think the 3MT is a perfect training ground to develop that vital skill of being interesting, but what do you think? Do you have strategies to be interesting? Or does the whole idea strike you as false and make you feel uncomfortable? I’m interested to hear what you think in the comments.