04 March 2010

Should your first presentation be a poster?

You’re a student who has been working very hard on your research project. To your surprise, your supervisor somehow manages to find a pot of money to send you off to your first conference. Joy! Excitement!

And your supervisor says, “Since this is your first conference, you should do a poster.”

There are a lot of reasons for people to do a poster at a first conference over doing an oral presentation. Posters are less formal, less high stakes, and almost never get bumped.

But there’s a risk.

Here’s one of my own posters that fell victim to it (click to enlarge).

Too much text. Way too much. How did that happen?

This was the first presentation of our project. We were still thinking through the story. And that’s the risk. If it’s the first time you're committing ideas and data to paper, you tend to think through it by writing it out. It’s no accident that the word for “essay” comes from French for “try” or “attempt” – you’re trying to clarify your thinking by writing it out.

The result is often a poster with lots and lots and lots of words. Like above.

That the poster was so verbose was useful when we wrote the journal article about this project, because we had thought so much of it out in making the poster. But while the article may have benefited, make no mistake: the poster was the worse for it.

Your poster should not be the first draft of a journal manuscript; the two are very different forms of communication. But that’s a very likely outcome if you haven’t worked through the story before. It’s not clear to you yet how much you can cut and still make your points.

The “Do as I say, not as I did” morale of the story:

If your poster is the first time you’re presenting a project, you must be especially ruthless in editing it. Run through the story to a friend. Get lots of feedback. Be as ruthless as if you are preparing a talk with a super-short time limit.

Related posts

Poster or talk?


Jimenez SA, Faulkes Z. 2009. Establishment of a research colony of Marmorkrebs, a parthenogenetic crayfish species. Integrative and Comparative Biology 49:e249. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icp003

Jimenez SA, Faulkes Z. 2010. Establishment and care of a laboratory colony of parthenogenetic marbled crayfish, Marmokrebs. Invertebrate Rearing 1:10-18. http://inverts.info/content/invertebrate-rearing-111-18

1 comment:

Victor Curran said...

Scientists used to rely on a handful of workhorse faces (Times Roman, Computer Modern, etc.), not because they liked them, but because the more decorative fonts didn't include a comprehensive enough set of Greek characters and mathematical symbols for the content they were writing about.

And of course, they carefully avoided sans serifs, since they make it difficult to tell the numeral 1 from the lowercase l and the capital I.

So the choice of Comic Sans for this poster seems less of a lapse of taste than a tool poorly suited to the job.