How to Present a Scientific Poster at a Mega-Conference

By Charles Sutton on December 30, 2018

A lot of scientific communication happens at poster sessions. It’s a great way to learn about the field, and to meet new people with similar research interests. It’s also a great way to be noticed in a crowded research field. Presenting a poster is just as important, and requires as much specialized skill, as giving a 25-minute talk. Way back when, before this blog became what it is, I wrote advice for presenting research posters. Back when I started attending research conferences, advice like that was probably good enough.

But these days, I think we need a few more tricks in our poster-presenting sleeves. One of my favourite recent conferences, NeurIPS, had over 9000 attendees this year. Unavoidably, the room was a little bit loud, and it wasn’t unusual for a poster to have twenty people around it. When the conference gets this large, you need to present your poster differently. I saw posters where one presenter carefully and quietly explained the poster to one person, both of them intently facing the poster, cheerfully oblivious to the fact that ten people were standing behind them, patiently reading the poster. If you are the presenter, don’t do this!

Instead, follow Sutton’s Three Rules for Presenting a Popular Poster at a Mega-Conference:

  1. Be aware of what’s going on around you. While you’re talking about your poster, people will be both joining and leaving your audience. You need to keep track of this. First, this lets you acknowledge someone who joins, by making eye contact and giving a quick smile or nod as you speak. (I’m not too proud to admit that although I try to do this for everyone, I’m even more likely to do this when the new person is someone I know, or someone famous.) Second, having awareness lets you adapt your presentation, because the way you talk to 2 or 3 people is different than the way you talk to a crowd of 15 people. How so? See the next two points.

  2. Use your body language. Congratulations! Your work has attracted a crowd, and you have maintained the presence of mind to notice. Now what?

    Continue your short talk about the paper, just like you had before. You just need to make clear that you are talking to the whole group rather than one person. You do that with your body language.

    Face the entire group. Make yourself big. Put your feet just a bit farther apart, your shoulders up, your arms away from your body, and your gestures large, so that everyone can see you. Look around the entire group as you speak. If you are doing this right, there will be a large semicircle around the poster, and you will be in a prominent position at one side.

  3. You need to speak up. If people can’t hear you, they will move on to the next poster. You need to speak loudly enough that you can be heard 15 feet away in a loud room. My voice is naturally on the loud side, but even I had to consciously exert my full effort to project my voice while I was presenting our NeurIPS poster.

    There are techniques for doing this without straining your voice. If your profession involves speaking, as is common in academia, it might help to learn about this. “The Right to Speak” by Patsy Rosenberg is one book that has been recommended to me.

What’s that you say? It’s hard to do all of that while talking about research at the same time? Yes! It is. That’s why you need to practice your short presentation until you know it well. This leaves you with mental space that you can use to focus on your audience. (Actually, this is good advice for all talks.)

The transition from “small group poster talk” to “large group poster talk” can be awkward, but you manage it. You can say something to the earlier group like, “I’m going to reset the presentation for these new people, but feel free to jump in if you think of more questions.” Stuff like that.

One time, I had just started presenting the poster to one person when a group seemed to come up out of nowhere. I just looked at my faithful original audience and said, “You might want to take a step back, because I’m about to shout.” I did, and he did. I didn’t restart my talk, but I added in a few background phrases here and there to help the larger group get context.