Some Advice for the Lonely Students Standing By Themselves Next to Their Posters

Whenever I attend ASM, there are always students standing next to unattended posters. It’s somewhat depressing: they’ve cleaned and gussied themselves up, sweated over the details of their posters, and are gamely trying to not look depressed at the complete lack of attention their posters are receiving. Because I like helping, I’m going to provide some advice which might only be worth what you paid for it:
1) Your poster might actually be uninteresting. Note that I wrote uninteresting, not unimportant. Maybe your poster developed a method you plan on using during your dissertation. Maybe it’s some preliminary data that frames a key part of the question. That’s important! But it very well could be summarized in one sentence: “we developed method X that allows use to measure Y.” Most people are going to walk on by. That’s ok. Just make sure your next poster does something interesting with that method….
2) Too much text. A poster is not a manuscript. In fact, a poster could best be thought of as a manuscript with only figures, tables, and legends–a manuscript without any (or very little) text. A 3′ x 4′ poster can easily convey five to six points, if they are well designed.

3) Too much text, part deux. Lots of text usually means lots of small text. Never go below 26 point type–and for the Intelligent Designer’s sake, use an easy to read font (Arial, Helvetica, Cambria are good). Not only does small text scream, “You have to read hundreds, maybe thousands of words in an environment unconducive to reading (e.g., a crowded poster hall)”, but the more senior members of your field are going to find it hard to read (old eyes don’t work so well). The only exceptions to this are the ‘legalities’, such as acknowledgements and references.
4) Informative headings are your friends. I see too many posters with sections labelled “Abstract”, “Methods”, “Results”, and “Conclusions.” You have a summary! And some methods! Results and conclusions too! Bully for you. Use the section headings to inform the reader, while simultaneously describing the figure or table (see #2). Something like, “xyz genes are found only in clinical isolates” tells me what I should be looking for in the figure.
5) When it comes to presentation, the music is between the notes. It worked for Duke Ellington, you might want to try it on for size. Too often, people have weird color schemes or complex background graphics. Unless you are a graphics virtuoso (and you’re probably not), keep it relatively simple, with non-garish color schemes. Only use separating lines when absolutely necessary (and that might be a sign you have to rearrange your poster). If your figures, tables, and section headings are clear, the poster will be much more accessible–and less scary to someone stopping by.
Of course, the Mad Biologist never violates these rules. EVAH!
Anyway, if you stood by your lonesome next to a poster, this little ditty, sung by Jackie Opel, is for you:

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12 Responses to Some Advice for the Lonely Students Standing By Themselves Next to Their Posters

  1. Janne says:

    And don’t make like an abandoned puppy looking for a new home. I see this too often: the poster is decently interesting, and people slow down to read it. Out of nowhere the poster owner appears, in newly-pressed business formals, and nestles in next the hapless visitor, practically jumping up and down in forlorn excitement, with large, wet eyes screaming “please, please, ohh puhuleeeze ask me anything about my poster!!”
    Faced with the possibility of being pinned against this poster for half the entire session, anybody sane is going to feign acute disinterest and beat a hasty retreat.
    Short version: people are busy. No matter what their interest in your work they’ll have have a scant few minutes for your poster, and any sign that you’re going to buttonhole them for longer than that is a sure way of scaring people away.

  2. Lorax says:

    To counterpoint Janne, to the best of your ability do not stand there like a deer in the headlights. If someone glances at your poster or makes eye contact, engage them. You need to sell your stuff, so don’t miss a chance to get at it.

  3. WL says:

    I agree with Janne. I always tell my students to give a 2-minute summary version of their poster to visitors, because most people just want the take-home points and move on. If they’re interested enough, they will stop and ask questions. The last thing anyone wants is to get trapped at a poster for 20 minutes to hear the esoterica of your Western blots.

  4. Re Janne and Lorax,
    In my experience the best approach is to offer to walk someone through your poster. It’s a lot less work for your visitor.

  5. TheBrummell says:

    I would add only “drink the wine”. Any civilized conference will include cheap or free wine during the poster session, so they can write “Poster Session / Social” on the program guide. This also provides a convenient excuse to shut down the lunatics who want the poster session to happen at 8:00am.
    It’s much easier to pretend to be relaxed and un-stressed with a glass of wine in your hand, even if the “glass” is a plastic cup and the wine will later make you sick – for now, you look like a non-crazy person, so hold on to that wine.

  6. I agree with Janne. I always tell my students to give a 2-minute summary version of their poster to visitors, because most people just want the take-home points and move on. If they’re interested enough, they will stop and ask questions. The last thing anyone wants is to get trapped at a poster for 20 minutes to hear the esoterica of your Western blots.
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  7. Eric Lund says:

    Something that IME many people do not appreciate: the remarks about not making your text too small also apply to labels on figures. You may be able to make these a little smaller than your main text, but not much. Remember, the figures are (or should be) what you need to get the point across. (This remark also applies to people giving oral presentations.)

  8. I must agree with Janne. If someone is eyeing my poster I step out of the way and let them look it over. If they make eye contact I certainly ackowledge by saying hello but without going into my poster synopsis. I only do that if they ask for it. I guess that is because it always annoys me when a presenter comes up to tell me about their poster. If it is a good poster I shouldn’t need to be walked through it (the big picture at least). And if I do have questions the fact that you are milling about, dressed in a nice suit, have a name tag that matches one of the authors, and are wearing a blue ribbon that says ‘presenter’ all tipped me off that you might be the person to go to.
    Of course my big conference is Society for Neuroscience in which there are two poster sessions per day for five days, not counting ancillary and satellite meetings. There is a lot to go through and people can’t spend more than a few minutes per poster if they are going to see all they want to see. And they don’t hand out wine. Perhaps I should bring my own.

  9. coeruleus says:

    I think the presenter should at least ask whether the visitor wants to be walked through the poster rather than stepping out of the way and not saying anything: that breaks the ice and makes it clear who the primary presenter is (if it’s a crowded room).
    Posters are about interacting, after all! If I just want someone to tell me something I’d go to the talks (and if I simply want to read the posters, why is that person standing there at all?). Opening with “can I take you through it?” or “let me know if you have any questions” helps both the presenter and the visitor feel at ease.
    I absolutely *love* to have junior lab members present their work to me. I guess I’m now one of the guys who hangs out more in the ‘shake-hands-with-other-PIs’ lane rather than presenting the poster, but interacting with a somewhat shy grad student and getting them to come out of their shell, and express their excitement about their own work…very rewarding!

  10. Zen Faulkes says:

    Shameless self-promotion, if I may. I write an entire blog devoted to just these sorts of issues, called Better Posters.

  11. Lorax says:

    Science is a group activity, I think its ridiculous to suggest, as I believe some have, that a presenter stand back until called upon by. I almost always immediately ask the person standing there to walk me through it or ask onlookers if they would like me to walk them through it. I would think it obvious that you don’t waylay someone for half a session, but I also think its obvious you dont have a ton of text on a poster.

  12. As a veteran of many trade shows, I can tell you that you need to just step out and talk to people. I have worked trade show where everyone else was complaining about how little traffic there was while I came out with good leads. Why? I’m not bashful. I’m spending all day standing there and I’m NOT going to let people just go by and ignore me.
    Step up. Say “Can I interest you in….” whatever your poster is about. The worst they can say is no, and frequently they will say yes. People walking the convention floor are just as bashful as you are, so don’t let them intimidate you!

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