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Scientific Wonders in Five Minutes
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Lining Zhu


When I was asked to present in the City of Hope Postdoctoral Research Forum, my first thought was, “What? Present my research in just five minutes with a single PowerPoint slide? That is a Mission: Impossible!” I had given oral presentations of various lengths on different occasions but never a five-minute talk.


Fortunately, the Postdoc Research Forum offered two training sessions with Adam Bailis, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and associate dean of professional development at the Irell and Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at the City of Hope. Initiated by Bailis in early 2016, the goal of this forum is to train postdocs on short-form presentation.


Why learn the art of the lightning talk?


Most postdocs will not become faculty members. The 45-minute presentations we were trained to give in graduate school aren’t useful in most job-hunting scenarios. However, short presentations can be concentrated into an “elevator pitch” that is about 30 seconds to 2 minutes long. Elevator pitches can be tailored to different occasions, like networking events, interviews, or fundraising. A compelling elevator pitch can lead to meaningful connections or even job interviews.


To craft a good elevator pitch, it’s important to lay out the motivations for your work up front. What problem are you trying to solve? Keep the audience’s attention by making your purpose clear. You’re telling a scientific story and making an argument. A common mistake is to try to include too much complicated data at the expense of telling a clear and compelling story. Another common mistake is to rush through a presentation to try to cram a long story in a short time frame. Slowing down and paring down the story to its essentials gives the audience time to engage with your presentation.


One of the most powerful ways to end your talk is to take your listeners back to the beginning. Remind them that all your hard work is to look for a solution to a broader problem, for instance, a public health issue or treatment for a particular disease.


Crafting your short-form presentation


My Mission: Impossible turned out to be a Mission: Enjoyable, thanks to the two training sessions with Bailis and three other postdoc presenters. We listened to each other’s talks carefully and offered feedback on scientific quality and presentation style. I strongly recommend that every postdoctoral office provide presentation literacy training.


Whether or not your institution offers this kind of training, there are some good online resources.3MT® Three Minute Thesis, founded by the University of Queensland, is the academic pioneer in short-form presentation, and the winners’ talks are worth watching. Beyond the academy, I suggest you listen to startup pitches and learn how successful scientists and entrepreneurs impress investors in just a few minutes. For people who love reading, Chris Anderson’s TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking is a brilliant guidebook. The author breaks down public speaking into many elements you can work on step-by-step to become an effective speaker. During a personal conversation, Bailis recommended learning the art of storytelling from highly-acclaimed movies.


Now, why not unleash the master within to share your science? It will only take five minutes!


Lining Zhu, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the City of Hope. Outside the lab, she likes hiking and camping in national parks.