With countries loosening the measures against COVID-19, there is hope that eventually we will be able to resume the practice of academic symposia, and with that the practice of poster presentations. Poster presentations tend to be more popular with PhD students and early-career faculty. In fact, for many it is their first take on presenting at a conference.
The advantages of making a poster include the “pitching” nature of the format, networking opportunities, and the relaxed atmosphere of poster sessions. Some are also encouraged by the seniors who find it a good way to present emergent research. However, even a perfectly designed and academically excellent poster may not get the viewers’ attention if the session is not well devised by the organisers.
Poster sessions have become an integral part of almost any academic convention, so imagine my surprise when I asked Google “how to organise a poster session?” and got little advice. I expected to see numerous blog posts and pages with tips and tricks, but instead I was getting entries with the dos and don’ts of how to make a great poster.
Personally, I believe poster sessions have a potential that is yet to be fully exploited. I blasphemously claim they can even be better than “traditional” 15-20 minutes PowerPoint presentations (the last time I encountered people reading their papers ex catedra without PowerPoint slides was five years ago, but I could bet the practice has not completely disappeared).
Why better? First, poster sessions invite you to focus on what is the most important about your research and help others focus on your research rather than their screens. Second, the discussion is often more intimate and liberal. Third, when used outside traditional academic settings, they can attract a wider public such as business partners and policymakers. Fourth, they let you address your creativity, and so on. And yet, in social sciences, they are widely treated by conference hosts as “Cinderellas” of format.
A list of magic spells for organising poster sessions
How, then, do we turn a Cinderella into a Princess? The Internet, as usual, gives us some cues. For example, “[t]he poster session was for two hours one late afternoon in a basement space far from the rest of the conference. A few sad grad students stood by their posters desperately trying to make eye contact with the few people circulating. Don’t do that.” Reading testimonies like this, I deemed it best to pick up on a few bits of wisdom scattered here and there and on my own experience, and make a list of things that would make a poster session a valuable practice for me as a presenter. Here is my plea to the organisers.
- Provide clear and sufficient information (poster guidelines, like size, layout, and word count, examples of good posters, session guidelines, indication of intended audience, etc.).
- Make the criteria for the Best Poster award transparent (if applicable).
- Include the abstract in the conference booklet to help people find their way to me.
- Make the poster accessible throughout the conference, at the venue or online, or at least set it up the day before the session.
- If there are non-academic participants, perform some preliminary matchmaking of interests and expertise.
- Make sure that the session is not scheduled at lunch time, or at the very beginning/end of the day when there are usually fewer participants (that is, ideally, before lunch time); make sure it does not compete with plenary sessions, workshops, etc., scheduled for the same time.
- Do not host the session in the lunch room or in a corridor, or somewhere far from the main venue—allocate a special space where there are no other distractions, and that is large enough to move and talk to each other without raising the voice (before and after posters can be on display in other areas, as it can be difficult to study them closely during the presentation); this is counter to the belief that food brings more people into the room – perhaps, it does, but then the attendants are absorbed in digesting rather than engaging.
- Provide something like a small bar table (a luxury, I know) for the presenters to put water, handouts, business cards, and their laptop on and comfortably take notes before they forget all the insights and suggestions.
- Assign a discussant or several discussants if attendants are divided into rotating groups. In case of rotation, limit the number of listeners per group per poster to 10.
- Appoint a moderator who will strictly enforce periods for presenting and Q&A.
- Arrange not more than three rounds of presenting (another luxury) because the more there are rounds, the more difficult it is to remember whether what people are saying is a repetition of what has already been said to another group or to this group in question.
- Place at least one conference organiser/volunteer within reach.
- Make the choice of the best/most creative/most innovative etc. poster by the selection committee transparent (otherwise the risk is, the decision will be political or nepotic); the same applies to the participants’ vote.
- Publish the poster online together with the conference papers, so that it could be equally referenced.
It may seem that these criteria are more applicable to small-scale events, but even if a convention involves hundreds of people, there’s room for accommodating these considerations; where there’s a will, there’s a way.
E-poster session—the royal ball of (post-)pandemic times?
E-poster sessions are another option that could be explored. It will be interesting to observe how the pandemic and the contemporary emphasis on sustainability will affect the use of e-posters vs. printed posters. E-poster sessions are space-saving and “greener” in terms of travelling to the venue and paper waste, and they can offer more information by including links to articles, videos, and what not.
Recent evidence indicates that there was no sign of e-posters displacing printed posters because people preferred immediate interaction with the author to browsing and sending messages. But, when this interaction involves wearing masks and a 1.5-meter distancing, managing the access to posters and the discussion around them becomes a daunting challenge. From the presenter’s point of view, it is hardly comfortable to try to outvoice other participants through a mask, and networking feels awkward. Will printed posters make their triumphant comeback on the rebound of COVID-19, or will we see an increase in the use of e-posters? I am in favour of having the best of both worlds when posters are displayed both electronically (on the conference platform or, equipment permitting, in a poster “library room”) and, on rotation, on paper.
Poster sessions are certainly not a cure-all for the conferences’ ills, such as malfunctioning projectors or lack of organisational innovation, but they can be more meaningful and enjoyable than they often are. What detracts a great deal from pleasure in a poster session is an implicit assumption that this is a less academic way of communicating your research, or an academic way of communicating immature research or research that did not fit into the main programme, all of which is anyhow inferior to a panel presentation.
Au contraire, a poster session is what we make of it. It can be a dissemination environment for a science fair or a policy event, it can be a pitching exercise for interviewing PhD/scholarship applicants, and it can be a serious presentation format for a social sciences forum. The sky is the limit.
See also this Conference Inference blog post on the factors that can render a poster session completely ineffective, this Scientist Sees Squirrel blog post on the advantages of the poster format, and this article by Eva Amsen on the latest alternatives to routine poster design.
Sofya Kopelyan is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands. Currently she is exploring how strategic university governance can facilitate the implementation of the regional engagement mission. Her profile can be found here. You can follow her on Twitter.