Preparing to present your poster at a technical conference?

Be prepared to present a conference poster

By Ronald G. Shapiro, PhD

Presenting a poster at a technical conference is like commencement at school. It represents the completion of a significant amount of work. However, it also represents the beginning of a new phase of work. The question is “how should you as a presenter design your poster and prepare yourself so your conference experience will be a springboard to new opportunities as well as the culmination of high-quality work?” Remember, the objectives of the poster are to: (1) attract people to visit the poster, (2) engage in a meaningful conversation with attendees visiting the poster, and (3) provide a foundation to form a relationship with at least some of visitors that can develop over time. Let us now review these objectives and mechanisms for fulfilling them:

Attract people to the poster.

To attract people to a poster, the poster needs to have visual appeal. Since there are normally far more posters in a poster room than a visitor can visit in the time allowed, a poster presenter is competing with all of the other posters for visitors’ attention. To attract attention, the poster must first display a title that interests the visitor. Next, the poster has to have visual appeal. Finally, the poster should show some consideration for the visitor’s time. It should convey information that is easy to remember quickly and efficiently.

The information on the poster needs to be scientifically accurate. The conclusions have to follow from the data. The poster should, however, bring people over to the area and allow room for the presenter to talk to the visitors, instead of having the presenter stand by as people read. Bullets and illustrations on a poster are better than paragraphs. They should explain the problem, show what was done, provide an easy-to-understand graphic view of the results and show a few crisp conclusions. You might want to have copies of a well-written paper to give to interested visitors. Alternatively, a signup sheet (and an envelope to collect business cards) might be preferable, so people can request a copy of the detailed paper by email (to save a tree and have less clutter going home). You should also have informative business cards to give to your visitors.

To determine what information to include on a poster, I would recommend that poster presenters give their poster a two-minute test: Can someone unfamiliar with the content view the poster for about two minutes or fewer and then explain the most important points in the poster in their own words? If so, the poster passes. If not, additional work is recommended.

Poster boards at most conferences measure about 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide, though you should consult your acceptance letter and/or call for proposals to determine the exact size of the poster boards. Many poster presenters use a rolled-up single sheet of paper that meets the dimension requirements. The single sheet is simple to install and remove and has a nice look (especially when laminated). However, these are expensive to make (especially with lamination and grommets), may result in additional shipping charges, are awkward to carry and can be damaged easily (especially if not laminated and packaged in an expensive tube). An alternative approach is to print individual sheets of paper, each one noting a memorable point, and to mount these individually on the poster board (the way people made posters before high technology made wide printers readily available). The disadvantage to the multiple pages approach is that these take longer to set up and do not have the high-tech look.

Last year when I presented at the Eastern Psychological Association Conference, I decided to go with old technology for two reasons: (1) I wanted to save money, and (2) as I was just recovering from a leg injury, carrying a poster tube would have been a real challenge. I was unsure what impact my using the old technology would have on visitors coming to my poster. As it turned out, I had lots of visitors to my poster. I did, when time allowed, ask some of my visitors what attracted them to my poster. Much to my amazement, one of the reasons they gave was separate pages looked more interesting. The information looked like it could be comprehended more quickly. People also said the title sounded interesting, and they liked the photographs.

If you decide to do separate pages for your presentation, here are some recommendations:

  1. Print posters on high-quality photo matte paper (available for nearly free with rebates if you watch ads for rebates from office supply companies and purchase in advance). 

  2. Place each poster page in a clear plastic page protector (use only one side of the page protector) and place row-column numbers on the back side in case the pages get scrambled. 

  3. Place these page protectors containing the poster pages in a three-ring binder. 

  4. Make a map of how the poster will be laid out and memorize it — bring the map and mount it in a visible spot while setting up the display to serve as visual guidance, too. 

  5. Consider making some arrows to place between the pages to guide visitors through the poster. 

  6. Practice setting up the poster until you can do it in fewer than 10 minutes. 

  7. Bring a box of color-coordinated push pins to make your display look nice (while conferences furnish tacks, they are often mismatched and too few).

Once you’ve set up the poster, remember to take a photo of it and of you standing with the poster. And, don’t be afraid to ask some visitors to pose with you and the poster. Offer to send the visitors a copy of the photo. Just don’t let doing the photos detract from the main purposes of being at the poster session.

Engage in Meaningful Conversation.

Prepare what to say when people come up to the poster so you can engage them in meaningful conversation. Saying “Do you have any questions” or “I’m here if you have questions” is not engaging people in discussion. Talking with friends will discourage others from interacting with you. Adding value by saying “I’d like to tell you about…” as people reach a certain point in the poster is engaging them. Asking questions such as “Do you work in this area?” or “Have you done related work?” is engaging them. Talk with people about their schools, too. However, be respectful of people’s time. There are a lot of posters for people to see in a very limited time, so don’t tie them up for too long; arrange to follow up later. Similarly, you need to be available for the next visitors.

Form a relationship with visitors.

You can form a relationship in a number of ways. As I mentioned earlier, have a signup sheet and an envelope for people to leave their business cards so you can email them a copy of your presentation. Consider bringing your own business cards to give to visitors. Be sure the cards are professional: name, school, email, possibly the poster’s title and a telephone number.

Also, be sure the email address is professional and in good taste along with everything on the Web about you that someone could obtain through a Google search, for example. Your telephone voice messages should also be professional.

After the conference, read some of the work written by your visitors, send out the copies of your paper as promised and don’t hesitate to engage in dialog with visitors via email. If you have identified people with a common interest, keep in mind you may wish to study under them as an undergraduate student, a graduate student or a post-doc or eventually seek employment from them. Maintain these connections via LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook, too.

There is more to the convention than presenting a poster.

Take advantage of this opportunity to visit other posters throughout the convention. Go to talks. Engage with people in conversation. Use the time at the convention to meet new people. Do not to be afraid to approach famous people or people you don’t know as long as the people aren’t actively engaging in conversation with others.

A few reminders: To be truly prepared for the conference experience, I encourage you to: (1) work on your research and your poster continuously throughout the year, (2) develop your poster (and companion paper) as you develop your research, (3) explain your research to people not in the field on a regular basis, and (4) devote a lot of time to producing meaningful research and displaying it in a manner that will attract visitors.

Special thanks to Margarita Posada Cossuto and Martha Boenau for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


About the author

Ronald G. Shapiro, PhDRonald G. Shapiro, PhD, is an independent consultant and speaker in human factors/ergonomics, user experience, career development, learning, leadership and human resources. Dr. Shapiro completed his master's and PhD at Ohio State University and his bachelor’s degree at the University of Rochester. He is very active in the professional community having been recognized as a fellow in the American Psychological Association (APA), the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). He is a past president of the APA Division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology and a past secretary-treasurer of HFES.