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For your next conference: poster or talk?

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Author: Dr. Stephen Heard | Category: Career Development | February 10, 2017

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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).

    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.

    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!)

    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.

    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.

    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***.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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):

    - Anholt’s book “Dazzle’em with Style: The Art of Oral Scientific Presentations

    - Alley’s book “The Craft of Scientific Presentations

    - Purrington’s website “Designing Conference Posters

    Dr. Stephen Heard is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick. This article was originally posted on his blog Scientist Sees SquirrelThis article is copyrighted by Dr. Stephen Heard and was published with permission. You can also find him on twitter at @StephenBHeard.  

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