Why 3MT? A reflection from the 2020 University Champion (Sam Harvey)

Photo of Kym (courtesy of Sam Harvey)

This is a photo of my friend, Kym. Last year, I entered and won the La Trobe University Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) with a story about Kym and his life with a condition called aphasia. Kym is depicted holding a piece of paper: the torn corner representing the communication limitations caused by aphasia. Kym’s evocative story made a complex point easier to communicate. 

What inspired me to enter 3MT in the first place? 

I’m going to tell you why, and what I did to produce the winning presentation.

Why 3MT?

3MT is an international competition that “cultivates students’ academic, presentation, and research communication skills” (threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/about). Participants are given three minutes to discuss their PhD against the backdrop of a single static slide.

Effective communication is an essential life skill. In academia, we are constantly reformulating our ideas to suit different audiences, contexts, and purposes. Research communication takes practice and by participating in 3MT you get valuable feedback on how to develop your communication skills.

In order to present a cohesive and flowing story, you need to think very carefully about the nuts and bolts of your work. 3MT forced me to distil the details of my project into a dense liquor (just a few swigs will give you a good taste of my project) and I continue to use lines from my 3MT presentation on a regular basis because they succinctly capture what my work is about.

The competition carries some prestige. Participating brings exposure to your work and acknowledgement of your efforts from your mentors and peers. This acknowledgement can really reinforce your purpose at times when the going is hard. 

Opportunities will arise.  Since winning 3MT, I’ve spoken about my work on radio and been invited to present about science communication in a range of academic and clinical contexts. The prize money is generous and can fundamentally shift the PhD budget landscape.

My tips on how to approach 3MT

1. Prepare

Know what the judges are looking for. Study the scoring criteria. Watch 3MT videos online and judge them yourself. Notice the ways presenters satisfy the judging requirements – use of narrative structure, vocabulary, and intonation patterns to make a complex story comprehensible and engaging.

2. Think carefully about these questions

What’s the one key message you are trying to convey? If I were to ask a listener what my talk was about, what would I want them to say? My key message was: There’s this thing called aphasia, it’s a big problem, I’m doing something about it.

What is the arc of your story? How will you keep people engaged? Kym’s story formed the backbone of my presentation. His captivating visage helped snare people’s attention and kept them engaged long enough for me to tell them about my work. I kept bringing the story back to Kym as linking the science to the individual helped keep the message salient and relevant.

3. Structure

I used the Context, Action, Result structure and spent about one minute on each section. What’s the problem? What am I doing about it? What’s the outcome? At the time of competing, I didn’t have any results to report. Instead, I spoke about my hypotheses and the possible implications of my work.

4. Choose your words carefully

Script your talk, rewrite it, and seek feedback from peers, supervisors and people who don’t know about your topic area. If jargon or unfamiliar terms are unavoidable, define them carefully and use sparingly: “Kym has aphasia. Aphasia is a communication disability caused by damage to the brain.”

5. Delivery matters

Use a variety of speech rhythms, intonation patterns and pauses to emphasise certain words, phrases and ideas and to transition from one section or idea to another. Used sparingly, speaking quickly can give a sense of urgency or importance, but can also come across as nervy or rushed if overused. Conversely, speaking slowly brings a sense of gravity, confidence or thoughtfulness, but can becoming disengaging if overused.

6. Practice relentlessly

If your script isn’t running through your head while you take a shower, practice some more.

Finally, embrace your vulnerability and take the plunge! Yes, you will be putting yourself on show and exposing yourself to scrutiny, which can be anxiety-provoking. But, rest assured, the 3MT competition at La Trobe University provides a safe environment to practice, hone, and perfect your research communication skills.

Go forth and communicate!



Sam Harvey
is a speech pathologist and graduate researcher within the Centre of Research Excellence in Aphasia Recovery and Rehabilitation. Sam is studying the effect of dose of language therapy on recovery of language skills in people with aphasia under Professor Miranda Rose. 

Sam is passionate about building advocacy and community support for people living with aphasia. He is a committee member for Aphasia Victoria, a consumer advisory group for people with aphasia in Victoria, and co-facilitates the Windy Hill Community Aphasia Group.