Poster-session attendees can be slippery fish to catch. University of Houston psychology professor Tom Kubiszyn, PhD, for example, admits he looks at only 10 percent of the posters at any given session. Marquette University's Lisa Edwards, PhD, is so busy with meetings at APA's Annual Convention that she only reads a fraction of the posters she sees. And the University of Southern Mississippi's Jamie Aten, PhD, says he only looks at two or three posters, for not much more than a minute.
So how can you get your work noticed? We quizzed professors, early career psychologists and student presenters on how to make the most of your poster session. Here's their advice:
Use striking visuals. University of Southern Mississippi graduate student Stefanie Boswell suggests using an eye-catching graphic or orienting your poster vertically rather than horizontally to attract attention. "When I was presenting a poster on body art, my co-presenter and I incorporated images of body art on the poster, and people were coming by all night," she says. Also, be judicious in what information you include, adds Kubiszyn, noting that "white space is attractive."
Organize your information. Guide readers through your poster by using large fonts and bullet points so that they can quickly digest the main points of your research, says Kubiszyn.
Rehearse. Before Lehigh University psychology graduate student Ryan Weatherford presents a poster, he gathers a few friends for a run-through. "It's important to get practice presenting research to an audience so that you know how to make your research understandable and useful," he says. He also asks friends to pose questions onlookers might ask so he can prepare pithy answers.
Categorize onlookers. There are three types of passersby: passive, reflective and active, says Aten. Passive observers want to glance at the poster, take a handout and move on. Let those passersby go without much interference, he suggests. Reflective observers will read your poster, stand back and process the information. Wait a few minutes and heed nonverbal cues that they are done before asking them if they have questions, advises Aten. When onlookers are ready to talk, they might ask a few specific questions or share a handful of brief comments. Active observers will immediately introduce themselves and seek a "What did you find?" sound bite. Avoid getting caught off-guard by preparing a sound bite ahead of time. However, even if you've captured your findings perfectly, active observers still might criticize your work since "some people's point is only to point out their own expertise," says Valerie Leake, a University of Kentucky psychology professor. In such cases, "it's not worth it to argue," she says. "Just acknowledge that you could have used a different approach and move on."
Engage passersby. When Boswell is presenting, her goal is to interact with researchers from different backgrounds to look for ways to improve her research or incorporate new theoretical perspectives. If you're nervous about approaching people, "understand that most people are as anxious as you are," adds Leake, who suggests drawing people into conversation by making small talk, asking about the conference and their research.
Have handouts. Leave research summaries on a chair for passive observers and keep several handy to pass out, says Boswell. Nicholas Ladany, PhD, a Lehigh University psychology professor, suggests putting your poster on a Web site, then handing out business cards with the site's address.
Network. Check out your colleagues' posters and ask them about their work. Those conversations can prove fruitful: At one presentation, Aten met a student who ultimately steered him to his current position at Southern Mississippi.
Calm your nerves. "Know that you don't, and won't, have all the answers," says Aten. "And it's okay to say, 'I'm not sure about that.'" In that event, get their contact information so that you can follow up, he says.
Zak Stambor is a freelance writer in Chicago.