Rebecca Bundschuh, SETAC Education Project Manager

A lot of effort goes into preparing scientific presentations for conferences. The work starts with drafting the abstract and does not stop until after the conference ends, and poster and presentation images are uploaded online or provided to contacts. It’s hotly debated which is harder – a platform or poster presentation. It is a tough call. Both slides and posters take skill to prepare, and we contend that both require practicing of the oral component. Posters require presenters to be on alert to discuss for a good chunk of the day, while for platform talks, the presenters need only be on alert for 12 minutes; 15 minutes, if the audience asks questions.

Scientists all have inherent bias about which presentation format they prefer – platform or poster. A random survey indicates that for some bizarre, or the more appropriate word is byzantine, reason, the favored forum for SETACers is the platform talk. This preference often leads to truly missed opportunities. Presenting in front of a group of 100 or more well-established scientists and peers can be exiting, we understand, but today we want to discuss poster presentations and why they give you the opportunity to get a lot out of them for yourself and your research.

We truly believe that posters can be an effective science communication and networking tool. Poster sessions are a great way to highlight and pitch yourself, not only your research. Think about it! At a platform presentation, one presentation is immediately followed by the next. Whether engagement is productive or lacking depends on the audience and the chairs, and at times, there is very limited unscripted interaction afterwards, even during Q&A. Moreover, the audience is not truly captive. Take how often we spot people who are looking at their phones.

Using the input from often repeated comments on presentation award evaluation forms and talking to some veteran conference attendees, we want to highlight some of the advantages of poster presentations and recommend how best to capitalize on them.

Prepare a well-thought-out poster. Start planning your poster the minute you open that acceptance email and keep working on it till the print deadline! Spend some time on the actual design and structure of the poster, not just the research that is presented in it. Read the recent SETAC Globe article on the Evolution of the Scientific Poster for some design tips. Moreover, bear in mind these fundamentals:

  • Check the poster presentation guidelines for the meeting. They do differ from meeting to meeting. Keep in mind, different parts of the world use different formats. Nothing is more embarrassing than trying to squeeze a poster on a board made for another size poster!
  • Make the title short and concise to draw people to your poster.
  • Present your information logically and use the layout to help with the order. Most people read from left to right and top to bottom. Split your poster into columns. Allow for lots of blank space and let your poster breathe.
  • Cut down on text and use bullet points. Remember, a picture can say more than a thousand words.
  • Have no font smaller than 24pt to make it readable even from 6 feet or 2 meters away. Use an easily readable font and do not mix more than 2 fonts.
  • Use only 3–4 well-selected colors that come out clearly in print. Do not use patterns or black background. Avoid colors that are hard for color blind people to distinguish.

Think about the story you want to tell. Why did you do the research? What did you do? Why is it important to the scientific community, and what can others learn from you? Plan what you’ll say. It’s imperative to have your “poster pitch” ready to catch the attention of meeting participants. It is a sad day when we’ve stopped at a poster and the presenter turns their back to us and starts reading the poster. We could have done that!

Highlight the poster viewing times in your schedule. We know there is a lot to do and see at a scientific conference, but we recommend clearing your schedule on the day of your poster presentation. Focus on yourself and your research. There are other days to meet with friends or see the city.

Mingle with other presenters in your session. Posters are interactive, the communication is very personal and gives you the opportunity to directly talk to peers. By their very format, poster sessions allow presenters to be in close proximately to peers in their field. More often than not, the presenters of the posters next to you are working in the same area. Take the time to view the abstracts in your session and think about one or two questions that you can ask them.

Work the crowd. Make eye contact and say “hello.” Don’t forget to introduce yourself, so people do not need to peer at your badge. Think in advance about your response to common questions, for example, “Hey, what is your poster about?” It gives you an easy start into the conversation. Use your poster to amplify your prepared pitch. Have contact information ready and take notes of people interested in your research.

And, finally, try to relax. No one knows more about your research and project than you do.

We hope we could give you some thought starters, and please do not turn your back on interested SETAC scientists. Let’s create a buzz in the poster area full of interesting and fruitful discussions at the SETAC Europe 30th Annual Meeting, which will be held from 3–7 May in Dublin.

Author’s contact information: rebecca.bundschuh@setac.org

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