Talk in 2 minutes

Students ask:  How can I explain all of my research in two minutes?

Many conferences have two-minute slots for people to introduce their research.  For example, a recent conference I attended invited all the doctoral consortium students to give a two-minute talk in the plenary session, as a way of introducing the students to the community.  

The biggest mistake people make with two-minute talks is flagged in the question:  trying to cram all of one’s research into two minutes.  

The key insight is that a two-minute talk is not a research presentation; it’s a ‘teaser’, a way of inviting a conversation with a community.  The point is to open a conversation (not shut one down).  Think of it as ‘an invitation to the dance’, that is, its purpose is to intrigue members of the audience sufficiently, and to introduce yourself as an interesting researcher, so that they’ll be willing to talk to you.

So, how to open the conversation?

1.  Don’t make a statement when you can ask a question.  

The key to a successful 2-minute talk is a compelling ‘hook line’; that is, something that catches the audience’s interest. Think about a core challenge in the question you’re trying to address, or the problem you’re trying to solve.  Then flip it – turn it into a question that is likely to intrigue the audience.  Instead of saying ‘I’m researching something profoundly obstruse’, try asking ‘Have you ever noticed that this obstruse phenomenon has this interesting effect…?’ or ‘Have you ever wondered why this obstruse problem arises in these particular circumstances…?’ Choose a question likely to relate to something the audience cares about.  Once you’ve ‘hooked’ interest, you can give a succinct overview of what you’re doing about it, or how you’re trying to answer the question, and how far you’ve progressed in that endeavour.

2.  Selection! selection! selection!

Focus on a single take-away message:  if the audience remembers one thing from your two minutes, what should it be?  Don’t try to cover everything; pick one key thread and summarise question, approach, progress so far.  Consider the difference between a journal paper and its 300-word abstract.  The abstract provides an overview of the content sufficient to allow the potential reader to assess its relevance and interest.  The abstract omits the detail, but nevertheless covers question, method, and key findings.  The two-minute talk is similar:  key points only, indicating the focus and shape of the research, and highlighting key findings, in order to prompt interest and further discussion.

3. Voice

Remember, it’s the beginning of a conversation, not a lecture.  So it’s fine to use an informal voice – including some snappy expressions or a pithy example.  The way you speak can convey that you’re open to questions, friendly, and (gently) passionate about your research.  And that’s another good reason to ask a question rather than make a statement: you want to invite discussion and encourage input, rather than present yourself as someone more interested in self-promotion through aggressive assertion. 

The same principles apply to a cocktail party introduction or an elevator pitch (i.e., one of those social situations that throw you into contact with someone you don’t know but want to impress – or at least interest).  Similar to the two-minute talk, the core feature of the elevator pitch is the ‘hook line’.  But the difference is that an elevator pitch is usually one-to-one or one-to-few – and so, if you’re acquainted with someone’s work, you have a chance to use what you know (such as a shared methodology, a challenge of interest, some resonance between their work and yours) to tailor your ‘hook line’ to that person’s interests.  ‘When you did your research on X, did you think about its relationship to Y?’  ‘Have you considered Z as a possible approach to the challenge you wrote about?’ 

When they answer your question, you can follow up with an insight, something pithy and relevant shared from your research.  The insight could be a solution, a method, a particular focus you’ve taken –  i.e., something that adds value and distinguishes your work.  The key is to create a link between their interest and yours.  Don’t forget to introduce yourself along the way, and to follow up with a specific invitation for further discussion[1] (e.g., Shall we meet at the coffee break?).

The goal is to start a conversation.  Pique interest, so that they want to know more.  Form a connection between your research and theirs, then follow up.

p.s. You’d be surprised how many ‘famous researchers’ also find it awkward to start a conversation…

[1] You’ll notice that this is similar to, but a bit different from, a business ‘elevator pitch’ to sell something, for which the typical structure is:  introduction (i.e., introduce yourself), problem, solution, question/call to action.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *