Substantive soundbites - The Chronicle

Substantive soundbites, The Chronicle, 6 October

What do fish ears, damaged brains and dark matter have in common? These were three of the topics presented at the Australian National University’s ‘Three Minute Thesis’ competition.

Not since Monty Python’s ‘Summarise Proust in Fifteen Seconds’ competition, have contestants  had to boil so much material down to so little time. As the host pointed out on the night, an 80,000 word thesis would take nine hours to read out.

And yet they performed magnificently. Along with my fellow judges – Genevieve Jacobs, Susan Bannigan, Subho Banerjee and Adam Bandt – I was constantly struck by the presenters’ ability to provide context, insight and a dose of wit. 

We learned that the ear stones of fish can allow archaeologists to reconstruct the climate of past ages, that big bran wheat can help prevent diabetes, and that service workers with low self-esteem are less vulnerable to the petty slights thrown at them by uncaring customers.

The winner of the three minute thesis, engineering PhD Kiara Bruggeman, explained how her research helped repair damaged brain tissue without the need for multiple injections into the brain.

The three minute thesis is a great reminder that good communication isn’t about dumbing things down – it’s about finding a pithy way of conveying the key nugget of wisdom. This isn’t always easy (as the saying goes “I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter”), but it matters.

The same goes for politics. Sure, it’s tough to communicate complex policy in the age of the soundbite. But if our best PhD students can convey their research in three minutes, those of us who believe in lasting reform should be able to explain big ideas in a way that’s concise, memorable, and – gasp – maybe even entertaining.

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