The Conference Poster Child

Brian Taylor

February 05, 2010

If I had the time and money, I could probably go to a conference on some topic related to my research interests every month or two. Some of us flock to as many conferences as possible; others avoid them as much as possible. Love them or hate them, conferences are an ever-present part of academic life.

I love going to conferences. I have not always loved them as much as I do now, but I have always found them fascinating—in part for the science and in part for the strange but interesting cultural rituals.

At moderate-to-large science conferences, the typical format of presentations is 15- to 20-minute talks before a seated audience, with brief introductions of the speakers and time at the end for questions. Other presentations are in poster format: The scholar stands in front of a poster for a specific time block (typically a couple of hours) and explains the research illustrated on it to anyone who happens to stop by.

Many scientists have strong preferences about whether to give a talk or present a poster. Those preferences may be based on experience and deep knowledge of one's own communication skills (or lack thereof), but in some cases the preferences are based on rumor and misperception. Let's compare the two.

Which is more stressful? Some academics think that giving a talk is more stressful than presenting a poster because talks involve speaking to an audience that is sitting and staring at you. In fact, the audience is likely gazing at a large screen on which images related to your talk are projected. You as the speaker are a disembodied, amplified voice off in a dark corner of the room. Furthermore, if you are worried about being unable to answer questions at the end of the talk, you can always keep talking and leave no time for questions.

Presenting a poster, however, involves answering questions for hours. I enjoy it, but I fail to see how it is less stressful than giving a talk. Perhaps the stress equation is based on the assumption that there might be many more people at a talk than listening to you at a poster. If you flame out in your talk, you will be embarrassed in front of many people, but if you have a problem during a poster conversation, you can recover by the time you talk to the next person, thereby compartmentalizing your humiliation. That makes sense, but I still think that two to three hours of being questioned about your work, one on one, is no less stressful than giving a short talk.

Consider other potential poster pitfalls, such as standing alone at your poster as swarms of people glide by, glancing at your poster title and moving on without a flicker of interest. Also grim is the experience of standing alone at your poster while the adjacent poster collects so many people that you have to move out of the way. A low point for me in my history of poster presenting was when I spent hours fending off people who stopped by my poster for the sole purpose of telling me how much they hated my co-author.

Talks typically have a more stable audience (in terms of numbers), although I suppose one must consider the remote possibility of an exodus during your presentation, as large numbers of people flee to a concurrent session in which a cosmically famous scientist is speaking.

Clearly, tense situations can arise in either a talk or a poster presentation. But stress isn't the only point of comparison.

Which is more work? For me, posters are a lot more work to prepare than talks, with the exception of one conference in which I attempted to give a talk in a language that was not my native English.

Talks and posters both require careful thought about the content and the best way to make the essential points in a logical order (without too much text). Both also require attention to aesthetics (colors, fonts, type size). In the case of talks, once the images are loaded into the presentation software, you can rearrange your slides right up to the bitter end, in some cases. Some people don't like that aspect of a talk (you're not really done preparing it until you give it), but I like the flexibility.

With a poster, you have to deal with the logistics of printing, including making sure that the colors don't print in shocking hues that obscure the text and images, and checking that nothing is truncated. Once the poster is printed, it's too late to fix that typo or misplaced caption. Then you have to transport the poster to the conference site (unless you have the conference print it for you, a nice but somewhat expensive feature of some conferences). And for me, a not-tall person, a particular challenge is getting the poster secured to the display board evenly without having it fall on my head.

Some people think that talks are more work because you usually need to rehearse, but you don't need to practice a poster. In fact, many people would benefit from practicing what they will say at their poster. At a recent conference, I ran into one of my graduate students the morning before he was to present his research in an afternoon poster session. When I asked if he was ready, he said, "Yes, the poster is up, and I just need to go stand by it at the right time." I pretended that I was walking up to his poster and asked, "So what is the main point here? Can you give me a quick summary?" He was silent for a moment and then said, "OK, I am not ready. I am going to go sit down now and think about what to say."

When you talk someone through a poster, you don't want to just read the captions aloud; you want to have a compelling story ready to tell. And then you have to give the story again to the next person, and the next. Posters are a lot of work.

Which is more prestigious? This one is difficult to answer because it used to be true that talks were more prestigious than posters (i.e., professors gave talks, students gave posters), and it's still true at some meetings. Now, especially at some larger conferences, posters are the majority of presentations, and it is not unusual to see well-known scientists giving them. I think the prestige gap between talks and posters has closed or is closing.

Whether you prefer talks or posters, ultimately, as a graduate student or a faculty member, you will have to experience the fun, and the stress, of both.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes for our Catalyst column. Her blog is