How to get your point across in 3 minutes or less

Gah-Jone Won knows how to make the complicated simple.

The University of Waterloo optometry and biology student recently won the national Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, a nationwide contest in which he had to distill all 200 pages of his PhD thesis into an easy-to-understand, 180-second presentation.

Actually, he did it in a little less than that; Won finished up with six seconds to spare.  Not an easy task when your talk has the rather daunting title of “The Development of an Antibody-Drug Conjugate to Specifically Target and Soften the Crystalline Lens.”

In his presentation, Won explained how he is working on a way to deliver a drug into the eye that could help end the near-sightedness that almost all of us experience as we age.  But he had to do without any props or media elements, except for a single, static PowerPoint slide. Notes weren’t allowed, either, so the whole thing had to be memorized. And anyone who went over the three-minute limit was disqualified.

Won says he accepted the challenge because he knows that science has a bit of a language problem. Doctors and researchers too often get bogged down in their field’s jargon and technicalities and forget how to use everyday language to explain what they do. Won wanted to learn how to change that.

“It was definitely very hard to do, but at the same time, it’s something that’s necessary; it’s a skill that as a scientist and researcher, you should be able to do,” he said.

So how did Won take a hugely complicated topic and present it in an engaging, easy-to-understand way? Here are his tips for how anyone can do it.

Choose a focus

The first step, Won says, is to look at the big picture of what you want to explain and then narrow in on what you think will be the main points your audience will relate to.  Won decided to follow this formula: explain the problem that needed fixing (the near-sightedness of aging, or “presbyopia”); discuss what solutions are currently available (laser eye surgery or reading glasses); and then explain the solution he proposes and how it would work. (A prescription eye drop that would deliver a drug through a protein to target and soften the eye’s crystalline lens.)

Weave a story

The next lesson, he says, is to create a narrative to keep the audience engaged.

“You need to present it in a way that is fluid and logical. Really, my presentation was a story. I was telling my story but only the most important parts and only going into detail when necessary,” Won says.

He deliberately chose not to focus too much on the technical intricacies of his proposed drug; in fact, he really only gets around to explaining the actual drug in the last 30 seconds. The rest of the time, he is drawing in the audience, explaining the problem of near-sightedness and why it matters to them.

Throw in a joke

Great speeches are often funny, but Won says he’s reticent to add humour to his presentations because he worries his jokes might backfire.

“Honestly, if you throw in a joke that you like but it doesn’t come across well to the audience, that might throw yourself off, and you’ll start second-guessing yourself,” he says.

But he was able to subtly add humour by making clever use of his slide. It begins with a blurry newspaper at the top left that then becomes crystal clear by the end so that the paper’s cheeky top headline can be read: “UW student finds cure for presbyopia. Declared national hero.”

Watch your tone

Won’s most important tip: “It’s important not to speak down to your audience,” he says.

“Not everyone has the same exposure to the concepts or the technical language you’re familiar with, but it doesn’t mean they can’t grasp it.”

3MT judge Tom Howell, a radio host and former lexicographer, seemed to think that Won nailed the right tone by not talking down to the audience or over-explaining the obvious.

“It sounds easy to avoid those things but it’s actually quite rare. Hold onto that skill!” he told Won at the competition.

Practise, practise, practise

When you’ve got to memorize a three-minute speech and deliver it under stress, the key to feeling comfortable — or at least looking it — is to practise over and over again. The presentation pretty much took over Won’s life, he admits, so that it was the first thing he thought of every morning and stayed in his head all day.

But Won took a few cues from the pros. He studied several TED Talks to get the hang of how to pace up and down the stage well, and to use hand gestures that made him look relaxed, even when he was anything but.  In the end, it seemed to pay off, with the judges responding to his easygoing style.

“I think it’s because I was having fun with it and I think you can see that,” he says.

Angela Mulholland, Staff writer

Drew Sauveur
Author: Drew Sauveur

Local business owner and resident of Durham Region

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