Designing a Winning 3MT Slide

By now, many of you will have entered this year’s 3 Minute Thesis competition. For the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of being AUT’s 3MT scorekeeper. I tally up the judges’ marks and facilitate their deliberations. Every year, I have an inside view of the judges’ room, and boy, it’s given me some insights.

Chief among those insights is the importance of the 3MT slide. Entrants only get one slide to display during their 3-minute presentation. There can be no sound effects, no animations, no audio or video of any kind. Just that one slide. Static. Still. Hanging there in the background.

As an entrant – and I know this from having been one myself – it’s easy to overlook the slide and focus on the content of the 3-minute talk. But that’s a huge mistake.

The design of the slide fundamentally influences the judges’ impressions of the whole presentation. There are no points allocated for it specifically, but it sets the lasting mental image that judges will retain of your presentation. They won’t remember every word you said, but they will remember your slide; and they’ll have it in mind as they award points and choose a winner.

The slides that tend to earn positive comments from judges are:

  • Uncluttered. Think simple, clean design.
  • Pictorial. Text-heavy slides are generally frowned upon; whereas images and simple graphics tend to be well-received.
  • Often metaphorical or conceptual. Many successful slides use one impactful image that represents the main point of the presentation.
  • Memorable. A punchy slide keeps you in the judges’ minds.
  • Academically relevant. You don’t need to include lots of complicated graphs or stats to demonstrate your research credibility, but you do need to ensure that your slide relates to your research.

The good folks at 3 Minute Thesis headquarters have provided the below examples of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ slide design on their Facebook page. Of course, these things are subjective, and all judges will have slightly different opinions of what makes a good slide. However, these will give you an idea of best practice.

Another key reason to favour simple slide design is that it influences your delivery. At the 3MT, points are weighted equally for the presentation’s ‘Comprehension and Content’ (research content) and ‘Engagement and Communication’ (delivery). That means that 50% of your score comes from how well you communicate with the audience. The ‘busy’ sample slide above would encourage the presenter to turn toward the slide and away from the audience, which is a dangerous way to lose them. The simple slide design, on the other hand, makes a great backdrop; allowing the audience to connect primarily with the presenter.

3MT is very much about that connection; about communicating the ‘big picture’ of your research in a way that makes it understandable to people from outside your discipline. That’s why it’s so important that your visual supports your key idea in a clear, uncomplicated way. Too much detail can leave the judges squinting in confusion. Design your slide to leave them wide-eyed in wonderment instead.

A quick note: you don’t need to include your name or any affiliation details on your slide. During 3MT events at AUT, we display your name, programme, faculty, supervisors’ names, and presentation title on a separate slide as the MC introduces you. That’s one less thing to worry about!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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