Presenting a Poster

A how-to written by: Sam Smidt, University of Florida

Poster presentations are excellent ways to quickly and efficiently communicate your research while directly engaging with the audience. There are a wide variety of philosophies and strategies to a successful presentation. Most of the variety is specific to a venue, research topic, or intended audience – but in general, there are common threads that can be drawn between these strategies, and I have expanded on key concepts here.

What to wear
In short, wear something professional – and by professional, I mean geoscience professional (which can be different from “business professional”). Keep in mind you will be standing and moving for hours, so comfort is important. You want your outfit to establish credibility and express care for your work, but you don’t want it to distract from your presentation –for both you or the audience. Look nice, be comfortable, and don’t give the audience a reason to remember your outfit. You want the attention to be on your work. Check out Science with Style for more information.

What to do
Most presentations are part of a multi-poster venue where the audience is free to move about from poster to poster. This means that your time can range from standing and waiting to interacting with multiple people at the same time. While waiting, it is important to be ready – smile, express willingness to communicate, and provide space for the audience to observe your poster. Stand to the side so the audience can see your work, and prepare to engage with an interested observer. If someone stops at your poster, give them a few moments to acclimate to your content and layout. Then, ask if they would like to hear more about your project; others may ask you directly to tell them more. Not everyone will stop, and many will certainly walk on by – this is expected and not usually an indicator of the quality of your work.

How to present
Presenting takes practice and preparation. The goal of the presentation is to guide the audience through the entirety of your work in a very brief period of time. You can think of this as an extended elevator pitch with visuals. I highly recommend keeping the length of your presentation to 2 minutes (with the ability to extend much beyond this limit with further discussion in response to audience questions). As a general framework, I recommend 30 seconds for your introduction and methods, 1 minute and 15 seconds for your results and discussion, and 15 seconds for your conclusions and future work. Keep in mind the audience is on a schedule and likely do not anticipate spending more than a few minutes at your poster. If you talk for the entire time, you minimize the opportunity for direct feedback – which is a main benefit to the poster format. Give the audience a chance to ask questions, and be prepared to communicate at length beyond the presentation. Use your poster as a road map for the audience, but do not directly read from or use your poster as a crutch. Your presentation should be sequential, and you want to maintain flow. Always move forward through your poster, and don’t go backwards. For example, if you have moved on from your methods section, don’t revisit your methods section later in the presentation. Use your hands to guide the eyes of the audience – going back and forth with your hands (and words) is distracting. Prioritize your figures, and spend time orienting the audience to those figures. Practice, practice, practice (my personal rule is 10 times through). Be enthusiastic, share your passion, and be yourself –these will all be well-received.

Responding to questions
You will likely interact with a range of expertise, from novice to expert, without fully knowing the observer’s familiarity with your subject (even if you try to gauge their knowledge level beforehand). This means you must focus on your knowledge alone and be comfortable with what you know. When asked a question, take enough time to think thoroughly and respond using the best of your knowledge. Don’t make up answers; be humble, confident, and accepting of feedback. When possible, use your poster as the focus of discussion by referring to figures to help communicate your responses. Thank the audience for their time, and use interactions to help improve your presentation throughout the session. For example, if multiple observers have asked similar questions, then you likely have identified a concept that can use further explanation during your presentation.

What to bring
Your poster. Also, a carrier tube may come in handy while traveling. Rolling up your poster ink-side in is usually best. Rubber bands can be used to keep your poster rolled, but be careful not to smudge the ink if you roll ink-side out. Paperclips avoid smudging but can leave creases along the tops and bottom of your poster. Having small printed versions may be useful as handouts, and business cards may also be effective for sharing your contact information. If a table is available, any relevant and small props (e.g., equipment used, laptop with videos, etc.) can be a powerful component to your presentation.

Additional references
More information on poster presentations can be found at the following links:
Cain Project – Rice University
Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching – Grand Canyon University
Scientifica