Engage your audience: how to prepare a research poster

By Taylor Szyszka, University of Sydney in Australia

The ability to present a clear and engaging scientific poster is one that will help you throughout your career as a scientist. It’s important to begin developing this skill early! Presenting at a national meeting is a great way to gain real experience and to network with peers and seasoned veterans. That being said, it can be a bit overwhelming to prepare a poster and compete against other top undergraduates from across the country. Here is some advice from my own experience presenting at Experimental Biology 2015.

present your researchWhen making a poster, I focus on the story. Every project has a unique story. Organize your poster with that story as an outline to provide flow and direction. This will help you figure out which details are important to include and what not to. It is also helpful to practice presenting the poster as you make it so that you check that you have all the necessary information in the correct order. Try to balance figures, text and white space. Your poster should explain your project on its own, but it shouldn’t be a written presentation. A picture is worth a thousand words. Let your figures tell the story along with limited amounts of text. Don’t be afraid to use colors or have a catchy title (within reason). This will lure more people to your poster and give you more practice presenting before you get judged.

For the actual presentation of the poster, I usually prepare a five minute version for people just interested in the overall project and a 15 minute version for those who want more of the technical details. These versions are more like outlines as I treat presentations as conversations. You wouldn’t have the same conversation with an experienced professor as you would have with an undergraduate. Your poster presentation is no exception. Catering your presentation to your audience makes the experience more enjoyable and beneficial for all involved. No one wants to hear a carefully scripted recitation of a poster. They want to hear a story and see your excitement for your work. It is also helpful to present to someone not in your field such as a friend or roommate before the conference. This gives you practice “teaching” the science involved in your project and will let you know if there are still aspects that you do not understand.

The poster presentation at EB was certainly the most intense that I had experienced. The judges had intimate knowledge of my field and asked detailed questions. The intensity also made this experience highly beneficial and my favorite part of the meeting. I had to learn how to think on my feet and apply concepts from my work to other situations or problems in the field. These are skills I will use throughout my career. My best advice is to thoroughly know your project and your field. Be confident in that knowledge. Try running through the poster with your PI or a graduate student/post doc in the lab and have them ask tough questions. During the competition, try not to get too nervous or intimidated. Even though there are leaders in your field present at the conference, you are still the expert on your project. Don’t lose sight of why you are there either! You are there because you love science and have worked very hard on your project. Be proud to showcase what you have done. Don’t be focused on winning awards or impressing people. Be yourself and let your knowledge and passion shine through!

To learn more about the 2016 ASBMB annual meeting and how to submit an abstract, click here

One thought on “Engage your audience: how to prepare a research poster

  1. Taylor’s suggestions are absolutely right on the mark about how to best prepare for presenting a poster at a scientific meeting, especially the “short” and “detailed” version of telling a story about one’s project.
    Perhaps the biggest problem with a poster is the number of words presenters try to cram in. The simple fact is that most people do not actually read a poster in most cases unless they are really interested in what you are presenting. After you have made up your initial draft of your poster, try to eliminate 50% of the words.
    Second, not everyone is an expert in the field you are working in, therefore avoid using phrases such as “I am sure you are aware of this…….”. Sometimes your audience knows very little about the field, it is your job to enlighten them and make them realize why your project is important (preferably to the lay public).
    Finally, when presenting at the Undergraduate Poster Competition, the judges are very likely experts in your field. A favorite ploy I like to use is to act as if I know absolutely nothing about the field, asking questions to determine whether the student really understands what they are talking about. In other words, when a judge begins to question you, you are being given an oral examination, so as Taylor points out, really understand your project and every technique you employed to do your research.

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