Undergrads: present your poster effectively!

Rory explains his poster to Justine, keeping to the strict time limit.

You have your poster and have tacked it up at your assigned place on a rickety stand. People are starting to wander in. They walk down the middle of the poster isle, trying not to make eye contact so they don’t get engaged inadvertently with a hungry poster presenter. That is the challenge of poster presenting. No one wants to be captured for too long at any one poster. How do you get people to stop and hear your pitch?

The scientist that stops at your poster has made a choice, kind of like speed dating free-for-alls. They want to learn something and they want to be released quickly, or at least have that option. They stopped because it looks like you will offer this. First, your poster is simple enough that it won’t take forever to hear about. Second, you look friendly and engaging. You might have made eye contact with the person and asked if they want to hear the story, promising that it is short. Third, your poster looks interesting. You understand that posters are short advertisements for your research, not the whole story.

We had a practice poster session for our undergrads, with a timer every 5 minutes and rotation.

So, how do you deliver an excellent poster visit experience? Practice presenting your poster. Tell a story. Make sure that it takes no more than 4 minutes. Yes, 4 minutes. Keep it under that! This is essential!

Look at your audience, not at the poster. Never point at the written words; only point to a figure or two. When you are talking to someone, you should let your words carry the day. Likewise, your visitor should look at you, not at the poster. If they look at the poster instead, gently tell them you can just tell them the story more quickly and you’ll point to the few bits they need to look at. The promise of speed is a good one.

After 4 minutes or less, release your victim. Encourage her to move on. She usually will. If she wants to stay longer, then it should be her decision. Don’t desperately cling to each poster visitor. Bring them in, entertain them briefly, then release them. Have fun!

You could also in advance email a few people you particularly want to see your poster. Tell them when it will be up and what number it is. Choose people that are in related labs and not just the PI. Their students are probably more fun. Some societies, like SSEvolution, have a formal way to do this. They also talk about permanently sharing your poster on figshare, also a great idea.

If you are lucky, additional people will join your poster as you are talking to the first person. Bring them in with eye contact, but do not go back and start over. That would be discourteous to your first person. Just keep going, making eye contact with both, and be sure to be open constantly to questions.

Erica explains her poster to Dave

Oh, one more thing. Some people will look at your poster when you are not there. It should tell the story enough that you don’t have to explain it. These people are really a completely different audience.

One last thing I should mention is that the poster should be great. There are lots of places to turn to see how to make an effective poster. In sum, it should have few words, under 300 if you need a number. It should tell a story, generally one story, not everything you do. It should have clear figures. It should flow in 2 or 3 columns, top to bottom, to accommodate several people looking at it at once. It should be simple, large, and clear.

I’m at a meeting now, looking forward to the poster session this afternoon. Almost no one will effectively follow these guidelines. Do so, and you will talk to the most people and excite them about your work.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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