Tips for presenting your scientific poster at a conference

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Tips for presenting your scientific poster at a conference

Presenting a poster at a conference for the first time can be a daunting prospect. The small audience (potentially just one person) can interrupt, ask questions and grill you about your research without too much effort. However, it is a great way to gain feedback and interact with scientists, and it can be a real confidence boost when others are interested in your research.

To help make the process less scary, Scientifica has created a list of tips which should enable you to make the most out of the opportunity and maybe even enjoy the experience!

Be welcoming

You should do your best to stand at your poster for the entirety of the session. To make everyone feel welcome stand to the side of the poster, making it easy for your potential audience to move closer and see the whole thing.

Smile and say hello to everyone who walks past and looks at you or your poster. Invite them to read more and, if they seem interested, ask if they would like you to talk them through it or if they have any questions.

As you talk through your poster, point to relevant parts of the poster so that people can follow your talk. Try not to put your hands in your pockets or behind your back.

If you are already talking to someone or a small group and someone else walks up, acknowledge them by making eye contact with them and smiling. Once you have finished with your initial visitors ask the newcomer if there was anything they missed that they would like a further explanation of, or whether they have any questions.

If someone is particularly interested in your poster and wants to know all the details of your research, it may be better to suggest meeting them for a coffee after the poster session. This will ensure that other potential audience members don’t get bored and wander off without talking to you because they have been waiting too long.

The most important aspect of presenting a poster at a conference is to make the most out of the opportunity you’ve been given. Who knows what might become of an interaction that you have in front of that notice board?

The “elevator” pitch

First impressions really count in poster presentations. To pique the interest of your potential audience you should have a very short synopsis (maximum three sentences and no longer than two minutes) of your research prepared which contains three vital bits of information:

  1. What is your research topic?
  2. What have you found?
  3. Why is that important?

The aim here is to get your audience hooked and wanting further details. Keep the bigger picture in mind, as the audience first needs the background info to then get excited about the small details. Make sure your pitch is punchy, intriguing and relevant.

Creating a story

Once you’ve reeled in your audience and they are eager to learn more, it’s time to build the narrative of your research. Like all great stories your research needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Aim for this to be 10 minutes long, or less.  

The introduction should set the scene and introduce the main characters:

  • What is the necessary background information about your research topic that the audience must know?
  • How did this lead you to your research question, what were you hoping to find out and why?
  • Who are the main characters (e.g. a disease, a drug, a cell type, a brain region, a technique)? What are the relevant parts of their “characteristics” to the story?

The middle section is the adventure, it answers:

  • How did you get from your research question to your conclusion? Why did you choose to take that route?
  • What did you find on your way? Were there any interesting twists?

The final section is the conclusion to the story:

  • What is the ultimate consequence of your journey? What does this mean for your characters?
  • Is this really the end of the adventure or are there plenty more adventures still to come? What might they look like?

Remember: You are the narrator; it is up to you as the story teller to make the content both compelling and exciting. Attendees are not all experts in your field.; if you are unsure how familiar your audience is with your subject area, ask them.

Read Scientifica’s top tips for public speaking

The importance of practise

Presenting your poster is ultimately a form of performance. In performances, whether they involve acting, music, sport or presenting, practice is a major factor in success. After all, however much of a cliché it is: practice makes perfect. Rehearse what you will say and practice presenting on your friends and family. Once you begin speaking at your poster session you will be pleased that you spent time preparing and practising. 

Before the poster session starts make sure that you:

  1. Understand exactly what all the figures on the poster show, that you can explain them fully and know their full implications.
  2. Have your brief synopsis memorised
  3. Know all the key points to your research story without referring to written notes
  4. Are ready to answer likely questions with confidence, and know how to deal with difficult questions that you might not be able to answer fully.

Check the audience’s understanding

Ask members of the audience whether you have been clear or if you should go into more detail, rather than asking if they understand, as this could make them feel stupid or ignorant.

For example, say something like “Have I been clear enough” or “should I go into more detail about……?” instead of “do you understand how this works?”

Dress for the occasion

While a full suit may be a little formal for poster session at most scientific conferences, dressing in smart clothing is a good idea. This may seem like an old-fashioned notion, but there are a couple of good reasons for it:

  1. It shows that you mean business and that you care. It gives the appearance of someone who has made a thoughtful choice about how to present themselves to make the most of the opportunity they have been given and you are there to talk about your research rather than have fun (which is totally allowed at the same time by the way).
  2. Some people may take you less seriously if you are dressed in overly casual clothing. It is less likely that people will feel the same way if you dressed smartly (although a Tuxedo may cause a few interesting looks).

So, what should you wear? The most common and seemingly approved dress is to wear a traditional shirt or blouse with smart trousers or a skirt. Additionally, it is advisable to wear smart shoes, but make sure they are comfortable, as you may be standing for some time.

The handout

There are pros and cons to having a handout with additional supporting materials or key information from your poster. You must decide for yourself if it will be of benefit to you depending on several factors including:

  • What is the purpose of your poster?
  • What are you hoping to achieve with your presentation?
  • Will it enhance your audience’s engagement with your research or not?

The major positive outcome of a handout is that gives your audience something to take away with them to remind them about you, your research and why they were interested in it. It also gives them a way to get in touch with you should they have further questions.

The main negative is that some people who may be interested and could benefit from speaking to you about your poster will take the leaflet, read it (or not) and never engage with your research again. It is an easy way for them to avoid talking to you, for whatever reason that may be.

If you decide to go ahead with a handout there are several items that should be included:

  • The project title
  • Your name and affiliation
  • Your professional email address (and phone number if your happy for people to contact you that way)
  • The key information from your poster (including a link to the relevant paper if it has already been published.
  • Any supporting materials not included on the poster that may be of help.

Dealing with feedback

It is important to welcome feedback, be prepared for discussion and not to be too defensive in the face of criticism.

If someone asks you a question or makes a comment that you don’t think is relevant, ask them to explain the relevance of their comment. They may have stumbled across something that you haven’t thought of because of their fresh perspective on the topic, or they might just not understand your research. Also, a negative comment or question might not actually be a criticism, but a genuine desire to understand why you’ve done something so they can fully interpret the poster. It is unlikely that someone has visited your poster to be vindictive, and if they have it is important not to engage them, shrug off their comments and move on to the next person who is genuinely interested.

Remember to thank the audience for listening and thank them for their feedback. People who have visited your poster could potentially be employers or colleagues in the future.

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