Competitive Speaking: 3-Minute Thesis (3mt)

Annually Simon Fraser University (SFU) holds a 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. The competition was first developed by the University of Queensland. You’re given a maximum of three minutes and one PowerPoint slide to discuss your graduate research, and why it’s important to a non-specialist audience. If you’re over three minutes, you’re disqualified. You can be at any stage of your research to participate in the competition.

Depending on how many entrances of competitors and the size of the university, finalists usually go through a filtering process. It may look like this: 1) intra-departmental rounds, 2) inter-departmental or faculty-specific round, and 3) university-wide competition with all finalists. Ultimately, this is a competition in research communication, without trivializing one’s research, and public speaking.

In the spring of 2018, I was an SFU 3MT finalist. I presented on my research on Vancouver sneaker resellers. I entered the competition on a last minute whim, with only a few days to practice before the first round. I entered my university’s ‘Wild Card Heat’ that was comprised of students whose department/faculty did not have a formal competition. I didn’t think I would win as I noticed the finalists from previous SFU competitions were mostly from the sciences. However, I thought would be a good experience to at least try. After I received the email confirming my acceptance into the wildcard round, I frantically worked on and went through several iterations of my ‘elevator pitch’. I won the ‘Wild Card Heat’ and went onto the final round with other faculty finalists.

While I did not win the 3MT competition, I still learnt a lot and am grateful for participating. I highly recommend students to compete in their university’s 3MT. Below I describe my process of planning and executing my presentation, and the benefits of participating.

My Three Minute Thesis presentation on "Sneakerheads and Their Practices of Trading" at The Presentation Studio at SFU's Big Data Hub | March, 2018

Prompts and questions that informed my content:

I recommend watching previous years’ 3MT competition videos to get a sense of what the competition is like. You can find examples on YouTube.

Think about your key points

  • Why would a non-specialist audience find your research important/interesting?

    • Do your best to avoid unnecessary jargon.

    • What are the overall goals of your research?

    • What is the knowledge gap your research is trying to fill?

    • Think about the questions do you usually get asked when about your research from a non-specialist? E.g. in my research, I often get asked why do sneaker manufacturers let sneaker resellers to continue reselling.

    • What do you want people to remember or take away from your presentation? E.g. my goal is to challenge people’s perceptions of anthropology and to show that studying mundane objects, like sneakers, can be valuable research.

  • Are there any metaphors that can help describe your research, or similarities in your research to a well-known phenomenon e.g. sneaker reselling can be seen similar to ticket scalping.

  • Would it be effective to compel the audience’s attention by starting with a story or statistic?

  • How did you conduct your research? E.g. methods, duration, and location.

  • Who did you work with? Who funded your research?

  • What is your field of study? Do you have to explain your field of study? E.g. When I tell people I study anthropology, they usually think I study tribes.

  • I encourage incorporation of both emotional and logical appeals because you want the audience and judges to remember your presentation and vote for it. E.g. the emotional appeal of my research is that sneakers trading/reselling is a popular sub-culture for youth, and some people who aren’t in the -sub-culture usually find sneaker trading practices and resale pricing to be obscene/irrational.

Perfecting your speech:

My style of working is binging: hyperfocusing on a single activity. I binged practiced my presentation in the mirror for approximately half an hour at a time for a total of a few of hours. I must have recited my pitch at least 50 times. While this worked for me, I don’t suggest binge practicing. Use the best method that helps you practice and memorize.

Contrary to my general research presentation tips on not memorizing your talk, I highly recommend that you do for a competition like this because word economy is crucial as you’re only given three minutes.

I wrote out my script single-spaced on a page and then I edited it down until it got to approximately a third of a page.


  • For a competition like this, you are judged based on your performance as a speaker and your content. Therefore, practice your movements to make them feel natural and look fluid. For instance, I liked to pace around my apartment while I was practicing my speech.

  • Practice in front of someone and/or a mirror.

  • Record and listen to yourself: give yourself at least a 5-second buffer at the end to ensure that you don’t go over time.

  • Continue finessing your script while practicing, as you may find some of your sentences awkward or verbose.

  • Incorporate pauses if it’s helpful in creating impact or indicating a transition to another point.

Slide Design

For my slide, I incorporated a photo I took of people waiting to sign up for a sneaker raffle at the Adidas Granville store in Vancouver. I picked this photo because it illustrates sneaker fandom in Vancouver. Underneath it is a photo of a sneaker (Adidas x Bape NMD R1) that retailed for $150 USD in fall of 2016. Today it can resell for more than a thousand dollars in the aftermarket.

I have an arrow and question marks underneath the retail price, shoe, and resale price to illustrate that my research’s aim is to understand the process of how a sneaker’s price be can exponentially higher in a resale market.

Prompts and questions that informed my slide design:

  • What simplistic image/chart could you use to convey an important aspect of my research?

  • Is there a map or figure you could use to help illustrate the your research process?

Do not:

  • Use complicated graphs or images.

  • Small or script heavy/unreadable fonts.

  • Clutter your slide: simplicity is key.

  • Use strong contrasting colours.

Why I am glad I did the 3MT:

  • The audience’s questions after my presentation exemplified there was high-interest in my research. This is nice, especially when you’re a graduate student and often don’t feel appreciated for your research work.

  • My presentation changed some audience members’ perceptions on the possibilities of anthropological research because my research is considered very contemporary and novel.

  • I am now more eloquent and confident in speaking about my research.

  • I have been invited by SFU Graduate Studies to participate in a few public speaking engagements in the community because I was a 3MT finalist.

  • I have more confidence in partaking in other public speaking opportunities.

  • I made friends with some of the 3MT finalists.

  • It look great on a C.V.! Indicating your participation in 3MT illustrates your effectiveness in research communication.