Posters: The Better Choice?

By Manisha Patel & Aaron Ellison

In this post, we continue our discussion of presenting your work at meetings and conferences. Here, we focus on posters: the misunderstood step-sisters of oral talks. You may think that posters are uninteresting or less effective than oral talks, but there are some very good reasons why posters can be much better. 

First, posters are up for an extended period of time—half a day or even a full day—whereas talks are over and done within as little as five minutes. In exposure time alone, posters have a leg up. Typically, if you are giving a talk, you are likely to have the undivided attention of a larger audience whereas during a poster session you’re standing side-by-side with dozens of other presenters competing for attention. But is the audience in the darkened room really paying attention to your talk, or are they scanning their phones to decide on the next talk they want to catch and figuring out how to slip out unnoticed so they’ll get to it in time? Or, more likely, texting, tweeting, or napping. But if you’re talking about your science to someone at your poster session, you’ve got their undivided attention. You might get useful feedback and find a new collaborator.

At conferences, I find myself walking through the poster hall before the session begins to see what’s what. If the posters have all the content written out (like a short paper), I scan them quickly and move one. During the poster session itself, I’m more likely to revisit the ones that are visually engaging and pique my curiosity, but for which I need more explanation or want to delve into the ideas more deeply. For those, I want to learn more from the presenter. 

Aaron Ellison

Second, keynote lectures or talks given in symposia or organized oral sessions usually are “invited,” but posters usually are “contributed.” Although you might feel like you’ve been ignored or passed over for an invitation to speak in a symposium, sometimes, paraphrasing Groucho Marx, it’s better not to be a member of the club that wants you as a member. And at some larger meetings, there isn’t even an option to contribute an oral talk, so a poster might be your only option. But in fact, there’s more opportunity for independent-mindedness and novelty in a poster than they’re often given credit for. 

Finally, since posters need to be printed beforehand, you’re not stressing about last-minute edits of your slides as you’re walking up to the podium. You won’t find yourself apologizing for how Windows messed up the fonts and alignments you attended to so carefully on your Macbook (or vice versa). It does take as much, if not more time, to make a compelling poster, but once it’s done, it’s done, and you can enjoy the meeting or conference without having to duck out to make still more edits to your talk. 

When thinking about the quality versus quantity of attention your work can get, posters can be a comparatively low stress way of presenting while getting meaningful interactions with your audience. But when it comes to creating a poster, the key is to find the right balance between information content, creativity, and opportunities for interaction.

Learn the fundamentals of creating scientific posters for live and virtual audiences in the third session the Communicating Scientific Knowledge workshop.

Register today!

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