Ashley Alva is a self-proclaimed nervous wreck when it comes to public speaking. In April of 2022, she faced her fears to compete in the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition…and won.

“Winning 3MT has boosted my confidence significantly,” said Alva. “I am currently doing an internship at Philips in Boston, and I have utilized many aspects of my 3MT speech when introducing myself and my research to my coworkers. The ability to clearly articulate complex research is a vital skill that should be honed for all graduate students.”

In addition to 3MT, Alva was the master’s ceremony commencement speaker at Georgia Tech in 2015 and has presented at a variety of competitions and seminars. We followed up with Alva to get her tips for nailing a presentation.

Record yourself and check the audio transcript. “I would use my phone or tablet to record a video of myself and generate transcripts,” said Alva. “I noticed that I speak quite fast when I am nervous. If you’re speaking too fast, the transcript will have errors; I would use that as a tool to gauge the pace of my speech. I practiced until [the transcript] had no errors. The video also helped with checking if the facial expressions and gestures I made while talking were appropriate and helpful.”

Know your audience. “The speech you are giving is about the audience,” said Alva. “You want them to understand your story.”

To ensure that her presentation was accessible to a broad spectrum of listeners, Alva rehearsed her presentation in front of non-specialists and specialists. She would ask the different groups questions, such as “Did you understand this term? What do you think of my research? What do you think I am doing?” to help gauge if her message was clear to an audience with various backgrounds and interests. 

Practice makes perfect (but don’t over-practice). “It’s not the number of times you practice; it’s how you practice,” said Alva.

According to Alva, it worked best for her to rehearse once every day for three days rather than three times in one day, for example. “We had about three weeks, and I would practice once every afternoon during downtime in the lab,” said Alva. “This strategy also helped with not over practicing as that can ruin how you deliver the speech. It has to be organic.”

Get familiar with the room. On the day of the 3MT competition, Alva arrived early to the venue to do a practice run. “It was very useful to get familiar with the room, to visualize how the audience would be,” said Alva. “That definitely helped calm my nerves.”

Before the event, Alva recommends finding a similar setting to rehearse the presentation. “Go to spaces where you can practice out loud,” she said. “A bathroom is great because you can see yourself in the mirror, but the only problem with that is the location is so small. Georgia Tech is awesome because we have so many conference rooms available to us. Go to a larger space or find an empty classroom and practice your speech. Your voice can change in larger spaces, so see how you throw your voice in a setting similar to where you will be presenting.”  

Break your speech up into sections. “When I wrote my speech, I put in pauses,” said Alva. “But I added another thing. I divided my entire speech into six sections, about 30 seconds each. First, it helped shape an outline in my head, so if I ever stumbled with one point, I knew what the next point would be. I used the section breaks to take a deep breath to prepare for the next section.”

Plan a recovery (for emergencies). Have you ever been presenting, and suddenly your mind goes blank? You don’t have to let a stumble detract from your overall presentation. “One of my peers gave a really good tip,” said Alva. “If you can’t remember what you just said or if you realize that you are not going to wrap up your presentation in time, just say ‘thank you’ to conclude your speech or to move onto your next point. A simple ‘thank you’ allows you to recover while remaining authoritative and confident in the eyes of the audience.”

Utilize all resources available. “See what resources are available,” said Alva. “Use them all. I made use of resources such as the Center for Teaching and Learning. They really helped me with my slide for 3MT and my body language. Don’t feel shy to ask people for feedback. ‘Hey, do you have some time to look at my presentation, and where do you think I’m going wrong?’ These resources are all very helpful extra sets of ears and eyes.”