Using that Conference Poster Session

“Value’s in the mind of the buyer, not the peddler.”
Lucien in “Sandman: Fables and Reflections (The Hunt)” by Neil Gaiman

In my experience, poster presentations at conferences are often dreaded by those who have to present a poster, but also dreadfully underrated.

Sure, you have to stand around in front of a poster like a cheap merchant, while the conference participants stroll around or have a good time elsewhere. At least, in a presentation, they have to pretend to listen. Those who are there, anyway. But they can also be really useful if you — and the conference organizers — see them as something more than your ticket to the conference.

I think the crucial question with a poster presentation is: What do you want to get out of it?

Seriously, why do you present that poster? Whom do you want to attract?

  • Do you want to disseminate your findings as broadly as possible?
    Then go for a rather superficial, easy to understand approach. Use an easy to remember (sub-)title and soundbites. Focus on what the results mean in general and how the findings affect everyone. The empirical proof should be on it too — you want to convince — but not as salient.
    Afterwards, put the poster up in your department. Students and visitors might not really look at it, but it might just spread the message a bit longer.
  • Do you want to get in contact with experts in the field?
    Then make the relevant key-terms salient. Find out what attracts this community. Are there graphics that the community will instantly recognize, e.g., some stimulus material? Will the title of the poster attract the community when they browse over the poster titles in the program?
    Prior to the conference, have a look at the experts in the field. You get their names from the conference program when you look at talks/posters similar to your research topic. Who will be there? Who is interesting for your work? For whom is your work interesting? Have a look at the university homepage — usually there are photos that might help you identify them on sight. Being recognized and addressed with ones name can be incredibly powerful. Remember that as a beginning researcher, other PhD students in his/her department might be equally/more interesting.
    Afterwards contact those who have shown interest via eMail/LinkedIn/etc. You might want to send them a PDF copy of your poster. Continue the conversation you started at the conference. Show interest in their work and look for possible projects for collaboration.

Depending on your design, both goals are not mutually exclusive.

In general, you might want to

  1. Attract the right kind of visitors (see above).
  2. Get these people to engage with your work emotionally or mentally.
    Go for instant enjoyment or trigger their interest with counter-intuitive results or questions.
  3. Ensure that the person understands it even if you are not there (or engaged in another conversation).
    For example, ask people from the target group beforehand whether they understand the poster, hell, even pretest it (a while ago, I was thinking about using a mobile eye tracker to evaluate a poster).
  4. Provide something the visitor did not know beforehand.
    Give them something of value, what they can take with them.
  5. Be upfront what you want from the visitor.
    If you seek specific skills or someone to collaborate with, say so. Say you are currently looking for people who can do x, or who want to try out y. Be also upfront what you can provide when you talk to interested visitors.

And whatever you do, keep in mind that a poster is not an article. Keep the text short and to the point. When it comes to the design, prioritize what is important. The poster supports you when you talk to a visitor, it’s essentially like an outline or a couple of slides on a large piece of paper. And slides are not a teleprompter. If you want to go into details, prepare handouts or ask for eMail addresses and send them your article/exposee/whatever later.

Find triggers that attract the people you are interested in and triggers that start a conversation. For one poster session, I taped an iPod touch to the poster using double-faced adhesive tape. Best way to show the app I had developed and a great way to start the conversation. (I also put some clothing below the poster in case the iPod touch falls down. It would soften the impact.)

Also help visitors identifying to whom the poster belongs. Personally, I additionally have a current photo of me on the poster. This allows visitors to quickly identify me as the author and start the conversation with the right person.

I think that seeing posters as inferior to presentations is a mistake. And I wish conference organizers would stop talking about “downgrading a presentation to a poster” or schedule the poster sessions in a way that conflict with other presentations or mealtimes.

And yes, if you plan for it, you can get more out of a poster than a presentation, even if those you are interested in do not visit the poster session. If you met them on the conference and talk about your work, you can pull out an A4 printout of your poster to support the discussion. You can send it to them afterwards.

Posters can be much more than an over-sized piece of paper. Use them.


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