Two microphones

It’s not spiders or heights or open spaces. For most people, one of their biggest fears is the prospect of speaking in public. The fear is so deeply rooted that, when surveyed, people will even say they fear public speaking more than death. 

susan daniels picture So it might seem strange that Susan Daniels, who is passionate about helping Amherst students, faculty and staff overcome their public speaking fears, is challenging students not only to speak publicly, but compete while they’re doing it.

“I want people to aspire to be speakers, rather than dread it,” says Daniels, associate in public speaking at Amherst. “Through the spoken word, you’re able to create ideas in other people’s minds.”

Her newest effort is to bring the annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition to campus. Amherst’s 3MT will be held on Thursday, April 19, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Stirn Auditorium.

Normally held among Ph.D. students at schools around the world, the 3MT challenges participants to a craft short and engaging presentation based on their theses. Students—who must present often esoteric information in terms a general audience can understand—are rated on their content and performances. 

Daniels was visiting Hamilton College in the fall when she became acquainted with the 3MT, which recently started expanding from the Ph.D. domain into that of undergraduate thesis writers. She saw the perfect opportunity to build on the work she already does in on-campus workshops, classes and individual coaching sessions. 

“We give a lot of attention to writing these theses, and they’re wonderful works of art,” Daniels says. “You need to be able to talk about how this impacts the world.”

While Amherst students are often prepared to communicate their ideas in writing, she notes, they don’t have as much practice talking about them. This skill, though, comes in useful later, when students apply to jobs and research positions—or simply need to talk about their work to find funding opportunities. 

“I believe that when done well, public speaking can be the most powerful form of communication that we have to communicate our thoughts, our ideas and our insights,” Daniels says. 

Through the Dean of the Faculty Office, Daniels received the go-ahead for a three-year trial period of the 3MT on campus. The competition features three cash awards: $1,500 for the winner, $1,000 for runner-up and $500 for “People’s Choice.” The contest will be judged by Andrew Grant-Thomas, co-developer of the social justice community EmbraceRace; Deepika Marya, an instructor in the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Peter Sokolowski, editor at Merriam-Webster.

Professors across campus were invited to nominate senior thesis writers for the 3MT. The pool was then narrowed down to 14 competitors: seniors Young-Ji Cho (majoring in art and the history of art and English), Josh Harmon (French), Andrew Kim (history and math), Christine Kim (interdisciplinary), Joon Kim (history and math), Siena Koh (interdisciplinary), Humberto Martinez (economics and philosophy), Sarah Nessen (biology and French), Jacob Pagano (English), Phuong-Nghi Pham (English, music and psychology), Emily Ratte (Asian languages and civilizations and sociology), Syed Abbas Shah (anthropology and statics), Sarah Teichman (statistics) and Karen Waserstein Engelman (art and the history of art and Russian).

At a recent session with Daniels, a small group of these competitors practiced their pitches and worked on writing prompts such as “Imagine someone in the audience said to you, ‘Why should I care?’”

“I was most excited about learning how to share the research in an accessible manner, being able to connect it to broader issues,” Phuong-Nghi Pham said. “In the past six or eight months, it’s been very much focused on a very small sliver. So being able to step back and take that eagle-eye view was super important.”

For her part, Daniels has a dream for the contest: that students will come and support their friends at a speaking event like they do at a big sporting event.

“That would be a win for me,” she says.