For your next conference: poster or talk?

Photo: Poster session, SunShot Grand Challenge Summit and Technology Forum, Denver; Dennis Schroeder/NREL via flickr.com. Public domain (US government agency).

I guess I’ve had conferences on the brain lately, with posts about why conferences have themes and about how I survive conferences as an introvert.  But there’s one question about conferences I hear asked more than any other: Should I give a poster or a talk?

I asked the question on Twitter, and while sentiment ran about 5:1 in favour of talks, there’s a lot more to it than that.  Each format has advantages and disadvantages, so there isn’t an unconditional answer.  I’ve given both posters and papers, with good and bad experiences for each, and I’ve advised my students in both directions. Here are some things you might think about, if you’re making the decision; thanks to a large crowd (acknowledged below) for points incorporated here.

(1) Either poster or oral sessions can end up being compromised by poor organization.  Poster sessions can end up scheduled against plenary talks, or against the only talk-free window for a meal.  They are often allotted insufficient space, meaning audiences crammed between rows of posterboards unable to either see the posters or circulate between them.  More often than not (it seems) the actual posterboards are smaller than advertised*. Finally, posters in the conference program may be less user-friendly than talks – not keyword-searchable, for instance. But oral sessions can suffer too.  Rooms may be too small, have entrances only at the front, or be too far apart for audiences to move between talks. Screens may be too small or not elevated enough to be seen past the front row of seats. Worst of all, moderators may fail to keep sessions on time, disrupting planned attendance.  Overall, organizational problems seem more common with posters than with talks, I suspect because organizers sometimes think of poster sessions as extras that are “only for students” – an attitude that drives me up the wall.  The good news: there’s some predictability to this for given society meeting-to-meeting, so it’s worth asking previous attendees how sessions went. No guarantees, though. Score a draw, because organizational issues can cut either way.

(2) Posters and talks require, and provide practice at, different skills. Conference talks have a lot in common with every other piece of oral communication you’ll ever do – lectures, defences, outreach talks, you name it.  Posters, on the other hand, are a unique form of scientific communication.  Most importantly, they have little if anything in common with written papers (I’ve seen more dreadful posters by people who didn’t realize this than I could shake a career worth of sticks at).  What this means is that if you’re early in your career, giving talks is great practice for all kinds of other things; giving posters is great practice for giving more posters.  Score this one as a point for talks.

(3) Talks happen once, and are gone, but a poster has a lifespan.  We’ve all experienced the sinking feeling when you open the conference program and see your own talk scheduled at the same time as E.O. Wilson’s (insert your own discipline’s disastrous matchup here).  Posters (barring really stupid organization) are up not just for the formal poster session with the presenter in attendance, but for at least a full day for casual drop-by.  Nobody ever missed a poster because they were faced with a this-one-or-that-one choice.  Score this one as a point for posters.

(4) Talks reach more people at once (or at least they can seem to).  If you can dodge the scheduling bullet (#3), it’s at least possible to have hundreds of people attend your talk – which is a very efficient use of 15 minutes.  Whether all those people are paying attention is a different matter, though, so it’s important to realize that a good chunk of that large audience may be illusory. If audience members are flipping through their programs, texting their friends, or just daydreaming, don’t feel bad, because that’s normal. Working to make your talk engaging can cut into the daydream fraction, but can never reduce it to zero. Of course, many folks in the poster room are distracted, too, and the noise level can make it hard for them to focus. Overall, score a point for talks – at least at large meetings (at smaller ones, the difference shrinks and may disappear).

(5) Talks are linear and irreversible; posters aren’t. Your talk audience is locked into your rate of delivery, and if someone loses the thread, it’s gone.  At a poster, a reader can back up or spend more time on bits that are more important or complex. And when you’re standing at your poster, you can see when someone is puzzled, address them directly, ask them questions and hear their replies. (Those things are possible in talks, too, but only just).  Score a point – maybe several – for posters.

(6) Posters allow two-way discussion; talks are one-way.  Yes, you can sometimes poll a talk audience (I’ve done it), but it’s awkward and gimmicky; and yes, there’s usually time for questions, but it’s severely limited and often stilted.  At a poster you can get real engagement with your audience (one person at a time). You can get criticism and suggestions**, build relationships, even spark future collaborations.  This makes a poster an especially good idea for work that’s still in progress, or that you’re planning to follow up on.  Score another point – maybe a couple – for posters.  (Notice that points #4-6 are related: together they suggest that talks provide an audience in quantity, but posters provide an audience with quality!)

(7) Only an exceptional speaker can make a talk speak to people from different backgrounds – those in the same subdiscipline, those further afield, and journalists and other non-scientists. (Granted, non-scientists cruising the conference may be few.)  At a poster, you can reach multiple audiences easily.  If you’re interested in reaching outside your own subdiscipline, that’s a point for posters.

(8) Talks can be left to the last minute, but posters force early completion.  You can tinker with a talk right up until you load your powerpoint on the conference computer – although, as a rule, you shouldn’t.  A poster has to be printed, and its spiffiness discourages last-minute Sharpie edits.  You might think this is a plus for talks, but I’d disagree.  I find a conference much less stressful when I know I needn’t, and can’t, tinker with my presentation any more. Score a point for posters.

(9) Posters are more work – a lot more work.  This partly reflects their uniqueness as a medium (#2), but I think it’s also intrinsically true. Making a poster readable requires extensive attention to layout, formatting, style, and all kinds of other things (and I know you’ve seen the posters, as I have, that prove this point).  Making a poster engaging requires herculean effort.  Oral storytelling is more familiar, more comfortable, and more naturally engaging, and so while giving a good talk isn’t trivial, it’s a lot easier than designing a good poster. Score several points for talks***.

(10) Posters work better for presenting visually complex information (like large phylogenies) and material that’s irreducibly technical (like methodological development). Talks, on the other hand, are better for data that are best understood using multimedia (video clips or audio).  This one, overall, is a draw.

(11) Giving either a poster or a talk can be intimidating to the unaccustomed (being nervous is natural, although there’s really no reason to be).  Talks put you up on a stage in front of a large audience, but some people find they can pretend the audience isn’t there.  Posters trap you in a small space with your audience undeniably present and within spitting distance. (Don’t).  Depending on your own brand of introversion, you might go either way on this one.

(12) A talk fits on a USB stick, and you can (should) carry several copies so there’s no risk of loss.  A poster is large and awkward to carry, especially during travel (although fabric-printed foldable posters may change this), and if it’s lost or damaged it’s difficult to replace on short notice.  Definitely a point for talks.

(13) In many disciplines, talks are more prestigious and matter on a CV; in some, like engineering, conference talks are even peer reviewed and matter as much as a journal paper (posters aren’t and don’t).  In my own discipline, I think attitudes vary: I “count” them equally, but many seem not to share my opinion.. Chalk up a point for talks.

(14) If English is not your first language, a poster may make for easier communication, both because written text can be polished over time, and because accents and vocabulary gaps are less of a problem in face-to-face conversation than in a formal talk. The same advantage can accrue if your audience is English-additional-language, which suggests that at a heavily international conference, we could score a point for posters.

If this seems like a lot to chew on, well, I warned you at the start that I wouldn’t give you a simple answer.  That’s because the answer to “poster or talk?” is “it depends”.  It depends on the conference, the topic, the degree to which the work is finished, the relative prestige of talks in your field…. well, let’s just say it depends on your own assessment and weighting of points #1 – 14 above (and probably some other things I haven’t thought of).

I will say this, though: I think the poster option is underappreciated.  Because talks are seen as the default, and because they’re easier to prepare, it’s easy to slip into preferring talks without thinking carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of each format.  There are major advantages to posters – especially the very high quality of one-on-one interactions they can bring – and casually defaulting to “talk” blocks off opportunities.

A couple of other points didn’t fit quite cleanly anywhere else.  First, the likelihood of getting good interactions at your poster increases dramatically if you actively invite people you’d like to come visit it.  Some conferences (e.g. Evolution 2016) use smartphone apps to facilitate this process, but there’s no reason an old-fashioned email couldn’t do the same; don’t be shy.  Second, some conferences are experimenting with hybrid formats that combine some of the strengths of posters and talks.  For example, the 2015 Entomological Society of America tried “Three-minute presentations”: one slide, three minutes, which seems about halfway between poster and talk. As another model, the 2015 Gordon Conference on Speciation invited some poster presenters to give 2-minute oral “poster  teasers” during talk sessions, combining the larger audience for a talk with the one-on-one interaction at the poster.

Finally: whichever format you choose, it’s worth putting in the work to make your presentation excel.  There’s some advice here (and if you’re aware of other good resources, please leave them in the Replies):

OK, that was a long one. Anybody still reading?

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) March 15, 2016

 Related posts:

Thanks to the following for Twitter opinions on the topic (and my apologies if I’ve left anyone, or anyone’s contribution, out): Academchick, Dan Allen, Marianne Alleyne, Jaime Ashander, Charlie Bailey, Heath Blackmon, Devin Bloom, Alex Bond, Elizabeth Borer, Michelle Bowman, Lisa Buckley, Chris Buddle, Abigail Cahill, Allison Camp, Linda Campbell, Cassie, Beth Clark, Fiona Cross, Whalen Dillon, Jan Engler, K Fortino, Auriel Fournier, Mary Fuka, Jacquelyn Gill, Nick Golding, Katy Greenwald, Bastian Greshake, Claire Griffin, Grouchy Grad, Carina Gsottbauer, Tracy Heath, Mason Heiserman, Derek Hennen, Theresa Houze, Dezene Huber, Ken Jeffries, Tobias Jeppson, Rob Johns, Carla Hudson Kam, Ambika Kamath, Madhusudan Katti, Matt Keevil, Jeremy Kerr, Andrea Kirkwood, Jan Klecka, Alycia Lackey, Jalene LaMontagne, Sarah Langer, Laurier Biology, Simon Leather, Leela, Karen Lips, Chris MacQuarrie, Fernando Maestre, Elina Mäntylä, ˈMariːˈam, Gabi Serrato Marks, Sean McCann, Terry McGlynn, Gord McNickle, Debbie Mitchell, Julia Mlynarek, Alejandro Montenegro, Dave Moore, Ed Morris, Chris Muir, Desiree Narango, Michael Nardi, Suzanne Nolan, Germán Orizaola, Dorothea Hug Peter, PhDFitClub, Timothée Poisot, Andrew Pruszynski, Michelle Reeve, Mariana Ribas Ribas, Miriam Richards, Cassandra Robillard, Emily Rollinson, Nikki Roach, Daniel Ross, Howard Rundle, Tanya Samman, Manu Saunders, Catherine Scott, Helen Spafford, J. Spagna, Stephen Taerum, Jeff Terry, Amanda Valois, Vigdis Vandvik, Helen Wade, Sue Wainscott, Terry Wheeler, Andrea Wishart, Justin Yeakel, Don Yee, Rafael Zenni, and Sarah Zingales.


*^As a result, it always pays to bring a couple of rulers and some duct tape, so if necessary you can MacGyver a vertical extension to each upper corner. This also helps when the posterboards are too low (nobody will read the part of your poster that’s just two feet off the floor), and as a bonus makes your poster stand out in the sea of unMacGyvered ones.

**^My best poster-giving experience involved a dataset on fluctuating asymmetry in prairie-remnant populations of Phlox pilosa. My results were the reverse of what I expected, and I didn’t understand why.  So I left a big open space on my poster labelled “Please write suggestions here”. I didn’t expect anyone would be willing to be the first to deface a nice clean poster, though, so I then wrote in the first suggestion myself.  This worked a treat, and people who saw my poster (even those who saw it when I wasn’t there) essentially wrote my Discussion for me.  Do this!

***^Although maybe the difficulty shouldn’t be so important to your decision. A lot of things that are worth doing are hard.  Also, eat your vegetables.

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24 thoughts on “For your next conference: poster or talk?

  1. Sean McCann

    I have yet to do it, but I like the idea of giving both a poster AND a talk. This could theoretically double the value of your conference fees and provide benefits from both your graphic design and speaking skills. Ideally you will have 2 stories to present!

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  2. Sean McCann

    I have heard of many labs who can only afford to send 1 person o a conference…These people are often tasked with presenting multiple lab-mates’ research, and as such, doubling up on talks and posters would be a real benefit.

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  3. Carina M. Gsottbauer (@CarinaDSLR)

    Lots of good points!

    I’d recommend announcing your poster on twitter during the conference and including the conference hashtag. Has worked a treat for me.

    Also less text is better!

    Regarding some more advice & inspiration:
    http://betterposters.blogspot.co.at/
    Especially the “Bad poster bingo”:
    http://betterposters.blogspot.co.at/2013/10/bad-poster-bingo.html
    And the “Bad presentation bingo”:
    http://www.monicametzler.com/bad-presentation-bingo/

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  4. Trish

    One clue to whether a poster area is set up well to get traffic is if the conference is big enough to be in a convention center. Smaller conferences can have really awkward spaces for posters far from anything else related to the conference–even in tents. Conference centers have large spaces in the same venue, convenient for people to check them out all day.

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  5. Mariana Ribas Ribas

    It’s useful to have a 1-min, 3-min or longer story behind your poster. So you can ask people approaching if they want the 1-min walk around the poster or longer. If you manage to do a good job, then this person will be interested and carry on with the discussion.

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  6. Don

    Nice article. I’ll add a few things.
    1. For posters, I’ve gone away from the large single sheet approach and instead design my poster to be several 1 foot vertical strips. This way I can put it in my luggage and don’t have to lug around a poster tube. You need to make sure you bring extra velcro or pins (unless the society supplies them). Once I get it back from printing I lay it out on a lab bench and cut it using a straight edge and sharp razor blade. The tube is perhaps the biggest turn off to me as I like to travel light (no check-in luggage for a meeting for me) and if I want to maintain my anonymity as a conference attendee while waiting to board at the airport!
    2. One thing you didn’t mention is that although posters almost never have large conflicts with the keynote speaker or Dr. Famous’ talk, some societies do schedule presenters to be at their posters to interact with attendees at times that DO conflict with on going sessions. The Entomology Society of America (usually 3000-5000 attendees) schedules poster presenters during the day when talks are going on. Thus, there has been more than one time when I’ve had to make a decision between hearing a talk and speaking to a poster presenter. The Ecological Society of America model is the best, with all the presenters for posters meeting at the end of the day after talks are done.
    3. Something else regarding posters. I’ve found that all posters more or less look like all other posters. This is because the poster format tends to constrain one is presenting “just the facts” (intro, methods, results, conclusions). I feel I can be more creative with a talk, specifically when introducing the ideas/hypotheses for the science. I’ve not seen a lot of posters that have gone into depth for this, instead most people present a short Introduction and focus more on the methods and results. Thus, it often falls to the presenter at a poster to verbally flesh out the “why” for the research (there are limits to this verbal approach). In a talk, I can spend a slide or two showing past work, other ideas, etc. and not lose space. I normally can’t do that for a poster.
    4. I’ll also add that there is hope for the poster/talk combo. Maybe I watch too much sci-fi but I can see an event hall filled with 72″ TV displays, and everyone is presenting a digital poster using something like a Prezi format via touch screen. This way people could bring up tangential data or ideas, show a video, or link to other info to help inform the visitor. Several years ago when small digital picture frames came out and were relatively inexpensive I had the idea to bring one with me to the meeting and put on some photos of study organisms next to my poster. I thought how cool this would be to give the visitors an additional visual experience about my work. Although I never got around to doing this, I’ve seen people do this at several conferences, so I assume it’s only a matter of time before we see and all digital format. Many conferences use the “virtual poster” although it’s generally a static digital poster.
    5. Lastly, I think it’s important for students to get experience at both methods. I’ve been around long enough to know that some people have disdain for posters (you mention the “they’re only for students” mindset). But, as your blog properly points out there are pros and cons with each method. I think the poster can really build one important skill that is not available for talks: editing. You have limited physical space on a poster, so knowing how to put all your “stuff” on there and tell a compelling story is a skill and art that takes practice. With a talk, you can add a slide or put some text on there you don’t actually talk about (but want the audience to still see it). I think the necessity to have the poster done beforehand also makes hones the editing. So a poster can prepare you more than a talk for writing that has limits (grants, abstracts, etc.).

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  7. Abigail

    Another consideration is that the noise level of a poster session makes things even harder if you are conferencing in a second language. Though that may be unlikely to outweigh the stress of giving an oral presentation in a second language.

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  8. Margaret Kosmala

    Nice list of pros and cons. I did my first poster at last year’s ESA (in an invited poster session). I was excited about the idea of getting to talk to people about my work. The part I hadn’t anticipated was the physical toll on my body of standing around for 2-3 hours on a concrete floor. As a postpartum mom with body in recovery, it’s not a small thing to ask someone to do. I wish they had chairs. I’d chalk that up as a +1 for talks.

    Also, I’m going to quibble with: “Posters are more work – a lot more work.” I found that putting together a poster was a lot faster than an talk. I think too many people start right in on a computer and fuss around a lot instead of designing the poster (on paper!) from the start. It took me about 3 hours to put together my poster from start to finish. It usually takes me quite a bit longer to put together a 15-minute talk and rehearse it a few times. That’s mainly because I like to use a lot of visuals in my talk and finding/making them takes a lot of my time. My poster had fewer visual elements than 15 slides. And once I had designed my poster, it was straightforward to grab all the necessary bits and pieces and stick them on there.

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  9. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Thanks, Margaret! Good point about physical toll, and what you say makes me realize that folks with physical disabilities might find an issue there.

    Also: can you make my next poster for me? 🙂

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  10. Jeremy Fox

    Any sense of how to weight these considerations? I think #2, 4, 6, 13, and maybe 11 are the most important considerations for the sorts of students I have occasion to advise and the sorts of conferences those students tend to attend (primarily large conferences like ESA and Evolution).

    Obviously that’s not to say that the other considerations are never important. Depending on one’s individual circumstances, any of those considerations might be more important than any of the others. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think #6 is the big one, to me, and I’d generally have a similar top-four. But the key is your last line: mileage may vary – among disciplines, conferences, people, etc. Which is why I avoided firm advice!

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  11. Jeremy Fox

    Re: your idea of letting the audience write on your poster, I’ll share a couple of other off-the-wall ideas for posters:

    -At the ESA I once saw Hal Caswell give a poster on matrix population models. He offered to help anyone who came by build a matrix model of their study species. As in, build it right then and there while standing at the poster. Don’t recall exactly how he did it–maybe he had a laminated poster with some white space, and a dry erase marker?

    -Again at the ESA, my friend Chris Steiner once gave a poster with a flap that could be lifted to reveal technical mathematical details of interest only to theoreticians. So the flap gave you the gist of the model, and if you wanted further details, you could lift the flap and look underneath.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an equally-creative idea for making a talk more effective.

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  12. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    I love the lift-the-flap idea. I am absolutely stealing that. People try analogous things in talks (including me) but I don’t think it ever works that well. Lift-the-flap is one great instance of point 7 – you can make a poster work for multiple audiences; much harder with a talk. Thanks, Jeremy!

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  13. Karen Lips

    Nice blog post! I had two other suggestions for ways to increase the lifespan of your talk – or your poster. You can post a PDF of the talk or the poster (or post the PPT slides themselves) to your Figshare account (https://figshare.com/). Slideshare is another, similar account (http://www.slideshare.net/). People can go to either of these sites anytime and download the slides or the poster. You can provide the link to your Figshare account on your poster, in your slides, or tweet the link out. Another option is to create a QR code of the poster itself and add it to your poster. People who are interested can use their phone to scan the code during the poster session, save the link, and reread the content later.

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  14. Staffan Lindgren

    I prefer talks at small conferences where you have amore or less captive audience but posters where you have many concurrent sessions.

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