Too many poster presentations are simply boring. The presenters have worked hard to conduct their research, analyze their data, and have struggled to provide all the details of what they have done within the limits of a poster board. But they’ve given too little thought to the purpose of a poster presentation. That is to engage attendees at the presentation, lure them into paying attention to the poster, and provide them with the take away message as to why the research that is being presented is interesting and noteworthy in terms of what was found. A focus on the details of the research, rather than the take away message, is the first mistake of a poster presentation gone awry. The first important tip is that presenters need to start with and finish with attention to the needs of attendees who have lots of competing demands on their attention. They need to ask “how can we arouse a need to look at our poster and satisfy that need and send the attendee off with the take home message?” This can be called an audience centered approach to poster presentations.
To gain and hold attendees attention is actually quite an accomplishment, but it can be attained if presenters keep it in mind as a goal.
Maybe if the presenter is particularly famous, attendees will come to the session just to see their poster. But few student presenters have that advantage. Some poster presentations will draw attention from attendees from the same country or the same university, from friends or relatives of or relatives of the presenter, or from attendees doing some research. But beyond that, poster presentations need to be organized around an interesting research question and a hypothesis that creates a certain tension or curiosity that a passing attendee wants to resolve. To take a very simple example may help from a silly abstract at http://tinyurl.com/7p5mrcx, how about
We were interested in the age old question of why do chickens cross the road. We hypothesized that chickens like the feel of walking on asphalt.
Hmm, this catches attention and the attendees asked themselves “why do chickens crossed the road?” and not being sure or at least wanting to be more confident of their guess, will lend the presenter at least a bit of attention in getting answered it before moving on.
The presenters could also provide a bit of background as to how they came up with this idea, but a poster presentation is not the place for extensive literature review. It is best to limit the literature that is presented only to what is needed to understand the context of the current study.
So, if presenters cannot come up with such a straightforward and simple statement of why they did their research and what they expected to find, they should give more thought to these issues before proceeding. Constructing an effective poster is not just about presenters expressing themselves, it’s about them from connecting with their audience and communicating what they mean. Ideally, presenters get clear about that as they proceed with preparing a poster.
Attendees are much more likely to continue to lend their attention if they can find information that they need to understand the rationale for the research where they expect it. Hopefully at this point, they have had some tension created or the curiosity aroused. Presenters can help them out and have to keep them interested by simply and briefly presenting their method for resolving by chickens crossed the road.
Under a clearly identified Method, the poster states
We studied 95 chickens.
Undoubtedly more details are needed. Perhaps an eye-catching photo of a chicken contemplating crossing the road would help.
Or maybe a photo of the researchers with an impressive scientific looking instrument observing what chickens do when they come to the edge of the road.
But this is definitely not the place to provide the entire method section of a paper written about chickens crossing the road. It would take strange attendees to be willing to wade through that kind of detail and still keep their interest in the research question intact. Most likely they will move on.
As elsewhere in constructing a poster presentation, presenters need to keep in mind that they can personally be available to answer questions that attendees might have one for the details. The second important tip is that “presenters having a poster need to think about it not have standing on its own but as functioning best when the presenter stands next to it, appearing friendly and approachable, and being ready to answer questions with contagious enthusiasm about their research.” If they work too hard to load up their poster with all the necessary details to understand their research, the effect will likely be overwhelming and they will simply send the attendees on the way to the next poster or out of the room. The important unit is not the “poster presentation,” but the “poster presentation with the friendly presenter standing next to it waiting to explain anything that isn’t obvious.” And the personal touch of being prepared to tell little story as to just how you got interested in chickens crossing the road can also help.
Okay, assuming we have not lost the attendees, presenters need to satisfy their curiosity by presenting what they have found in a section clearly marked “results.”
“We found that 83% of chickens crossed the road merely to get to the other side.”
A couple of figures or tables might help, perhaps one that gave a breakdown of the characteristics of the 95 chickens who were entered into the study, and maybe the differences between those that were retained for follow-up and those who ran away. And maybe another figure or table that explains with the 83% came from. But presenter has to keep it simple and straightforward, and not lose the attendees in a display of numbers that they simply don’t have the patience to sort through.
Okay, is the attendee still there? Then the next question the presenters have to answer is “so what?” And that is best done in a section clearly marked “Discussion” or “Implications” or “Conclusion.”
Our findings have implications for understanding important chicken behavior. In future research, we will study ducks.
Ah, relief to the tension is obtained. Presenters’ feeling should not be hurt if attendees simply read the research question, jump to the discussion or implications or conclusion without reading in between. Regardless, they have gotten the take-home message The attendees can now go on their way and maybe when they meet their friends for tea, they can tell them: “I saw one really interesting presentation at the poster session. The researchers were interested in understanding why chickens crossed the road.” And maybe their friends will reply, “Please tell us, why do chickens cross the road?” And the attendees can answer with confidence, “to get across to road, of course. But we don’t yet know about ducks ”
But before the attendees leaves the poster, it is particularly nice if the presenters can thank them for their attention, and maybe provide them with a handout copy of the poster, complete with an e-mail address if they want further contact. One of the good things about a poster presentation as opposed to a panel or symposium, is that presenters get to interact on a one-to-one basis with the audience, and if the audience isn’t interested, they can slip away without being trapped for the rest of the session. And no matter how hard presenters try, they can’t get all attendees interested in chickens crossing the road or other research questions near and dear to the presenters’ heart.