Three tips for explaining your science in under three minutes

winning formula: physicist Ocean Bach presents his “Three Minute Wonder” talk at the Royal Institution (Courtesy: Ocean Bach)

I am a 22-year-old physicist working in cryogenics and magnetics at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. Earlier this year, I did something totally different from my day-to-day working life and entered the Institute of Physics’ Three Minute Wonder competition, which challenges early-career physicists to present their work or research in just three minutes.

Despite being initially hesitant to enter the competition, I began to think about what I could present and concluded doing something about the European Radioisotope Stirling Generator – a proof-of-concept project that we are working on for the European Space Agency.

We are attempting to use a Stirling engine to convert radioactive-decay heat from americium to electricity. If successful, Stirling converters could be used to generate electricity for satellites on missions deep into the solar system where generating electricity from solar panels becomes increasingly difficult.

This project seemed perfect for a Three Minute Wonder talk, given the topic has a clear objective and the physics of a Stirling engine can be easily demonstrated.

After I got through the regional heats, the final of the competition was held on 17 May at the world-famous Faraday lecture theatre at the Royal Institution (RI). Arriving at the RI was intimidating, especially knowing that I would be presenting to science communication experts such as the physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili.

I also felt a bit out of my depth as I was the only presenter not studying for or who had a PhD. However, meeting everyone beforehand relaxed the atmosphere and it felt in the end more like showing your work to friends.

My presentation was eventful, to say the least. At one point I stood on the presenter’s desk in the lecture hall to demonstrate how power produced from a solar panel decreases as you travel further from a light source. This was done with a torch and a solar-powered merry-go-round – a very visual demonstration. Unfortunately, my Stirling engine, which shows how to convert heat to electricity, didn’t work. While being comedic, it at least allowed me to speak about potential issues and challenges with this technology.

Despite the hiccup, the presentation was a fantastic experience and I gained so much confidence speaking in public. I also must have done something right as I won the audience vote as well as the overall competition.

I would happily enter again and if you might be thinking of doing the same then here are some tips for presenting your work to a general audience:

  1. Make a clear narrative I had three clear sections in my talk: “The problem”, “The experiment”, and “The solution”. This gives cohesiveness to your presentation and helps the audience follow it.
  1. Don’t stress about perfection Things go wrong, demos can break or you could get heckled. Personally, I found it easier to go through topics or bullet points instead of remembering a whole script.
  1. Have a demo Even if it is loosely related to your presentation, having something you can show or interact with brings your presentation to life and makes it more relatable and memorable.
  • Details about how to get involved in next year’s Three Minute Wonder competition are expected soon.