23 November 2017

The shut out: when nobody visits your posters

A couple of weeks ago, I featured a poster that had no visitors. This, followed by having to defend poster sessions the next week got me wondering.

Just how many people put in the time and effort to give a poster and talk to nobody?

I ran a Twitter poll. I even ran it during the Neuroscience meeting, one of the biggest venues for poster presentations in the world. I was surprised.


Almost half of respondents have put in a good faith effort and got shut out, with no one talking to them.

This might explain why people have such differing reactions to poster sessions. I have given 38 posters at conferences. I have never lacked an audience. And I don’t think that’s because I’m particularly charming or do the hottest science or make the most visually interesting posters. (Of those 38, I’ve made maybe two or three posters I’ve been very happy with). I think I’m just another presenter in the session.

My experience has been consistently positive, but now I know I’m in the lucky half. I can see how the experience of having nobody talk to you could turn someone off poster sessions right quick. Many would probably never want to do a poster after even a single experience like that.

This points out how important it is for those who are not presenting posters – often the senior academics – to get out into the poster sessions and be the most active audience members, not hanging around in the “zone of intimidation” (which I dubbed the PIZI).

Madison Fletcher wrote:

During undergrad poster sessions especially, I actively seek out students who have people walk right by even if I don’t know anything about their topic. Invariably, I learn something!

Be like Madison!

16 November 2017

Posters teach visual science communication skills


The National Academy of Sciences of the US regularly sponsors the Sackler symposium on science communication. I’ve had gripes with them in the past. I have another this year :

Increase of poster sessions, at the expense of actual speaking opportunities, has a negative effect on #scicomm training of young scientists. – John Burris (Tweeted by Kat Bradford)

“We’ve moved away from encouraging graduate students to speak as part of their training – poster sessions instead of seminars etc. Creates an oral skills gap.” (Tweeted by Lou Woodley)

Burris: Our educational system has moved away from #scicomm (ex. grad talks have been replaced by poster sessions). (Tweeted by Sarah Mojarad)

This sounds a lot like a “Back in my day...” opinion that is not provable. Are presentation skills worse than they used to be? Maybe, but maybe not.

Poster sessions are the domain of academic conferences. Presentations at conferences, whether oral or poster presentations, are not the sort of broad science communication. Giving a lot of academic conference talks to peers does not in and of itself does not make someone an effective science communicator.

Similarly, it’s weird to worry about an “oral skills gap” when most scientists are never going to get to speak in front of large audiences. Successful science communication isn’t about going on a lecture circuit now. Science communication that reaches a lot of people is about television and the internet. (Smaller scale science communication is important too, but

I appreciate Mammody coming to defense:

I mean okay, yes, getting up in front of people is important, but “audience” is not always literally an audience in a theater or conference room – poster sessions do provide great opportunities to talk about your research and actually engage in dialogue.

Exactly. Burris seems to think that people giving a poster don’t talk. In contrast, someone at a poster session may be talking for hours instead of 12 minutes.

I’m going to flip the script. We should not chastise conference organizers and poster sessions for taking away students’ opportunities to talk (which I doubt). Instead, we should praise posters for introducing visual skills to students that would otherwise not be taught at all.

Look, it seems that one of the most effective communication campaigns last year was carried out by Russia. It appears Russia successfully influenced the 2016 US election. What was one of their methods of choice? Tweets, Facebook posts, and memes, like this one:


This is visual communication.

This is what thinking and working with posters can teach you.

And for all its problems, there is no denying the success of I Fucking Love Science, which has something in the neighbourhood of 25 million followers. It got to that number the same way as Russia: with pictures. As this critique of IFLS notes:

What you actually “love” is photography, not science.

As I noted elsewhere:

There is a lot to learn from the successful formula of I Fucking Love Science. Pictures get shared; see the data from Google Plus below:


People interested in spreading their science shouldn’t just work on their sound bites. They should work on their social media meme images.

Visual communication is powerful communication. Making posters should teach scientists how to focus on creating fewer, more focused, more powerful images.

Update: Close to the end of the day, someone finally remembered imagery:

What picture do you use to illustrate your point? What is this picture conveying to the audience? Finally the importance of #visualcomm mentioned at the #SacklerSciComm – Tweeted by Dominique Brossard

External links

Self-defeating prophecy (2012)
Sackler symposium still doesn’t practice what it preaches (2013)
Sackler improves (2013)

Visual communication image from here.

The perils of PIZI: the “PI Zone of Intimidation”


Justin Kiggins wrote:

The zone of PIs chatting with each other between the posters was always super intimidating to me.

Science writer Bethany Brookshire agrees.

It was super intimidating to me. The only thing that gives me courage now is a press badge. ☺️

I know exactly what my colleagues are talking about: little knots of people with grey hair talking to each other, and not to the poster presenters. The age differences make it clear who are students and who are the senior scientists.

The “zone of intimidation” is probably more common and more obvious at big conferences, because there is ample space between posters for people to mingle. Big conferences are more likely to have attract people who go there every year, so there is greater chances for people to establish annual “conference cliques.”

While that hallway conversations are the best part of conferences, it can be poor form on the part of conference veterans to interact mostly with each other. Some say they plan on being in the “zone of intimidation”:

Visit posters from labs you like, introduce yourself. Many PIs will be lurking nearby (including myself) and would be happy to chat briefly then.

Why “lurk” in the PIZI? And why tweet that you can talk “briefly”? Why not talk extensively to students and earlier career colleagues? The organizers of the Keystone Antimicrobial resistance meeting sent this to their participants:

Please attend the poster sessions and interact with junior colleagues. You are the reason the rest of the attendees were attracted to the meeting. Please mingle and inspire the next generation of researchers, clinicians, and policy makers to remain engaged in this amazing important topic.

Yes, talk to your colleagues, but try to not have your full academic reunions (“It’s been so long! How’s your partner and kids? Are you still at...”) in the poster session. Get a phone number, send a text, and meet for dinner.

Another possible solution to that senior people should present a poster of their own. (This is a variation on my belief that senior scientists should have a project of their own.) Get in there in the trenches and remember what it is like to try to attract an audience and talk about the project for hours at a time. Posters should not be the sole domain of first time conference attendees.

Hat tip to Kat Holt and Michael Hoffman for the Keystone quote.

09 November 2017

Why academic conference posters rock


Iva Cheung fires a shot across the bow with a long blog post titled, “Why academic conference posters suck.”

Ahem. Obviously, I have thoughts on this.

Cheung begins by noting that there is not a lot of research on conference posters. This is true, but it is expanding. Melissa Vaught has been tracking this on Twitter with the #conferencetopub hashtag. Some fields, more on the health and medical side, are all over this.

She then makes the arguments that poster sessions are socially awkward. “No one’s quite sure what to do or how to react,” she writes. First, this is a problem with the entire concept of going to an academic conference, not just poster sessions. She even goes on to say, “posters save people with anxiety from having to speak in front of a crowd.” Second, this is a case of, “Your mileage may vary.” I have seen many people who know very clearly what to do and how to react. Some people feel awkward during any social interactions with new people. People can get better at this.

Institutions should have poster printing capabilities


Cheung argues that “posters are expensive.” That is not a problem with the poster format. That is a problem of institutional support. I have not paid for a poster in years, because my university has invested in a large format printer and paper. Department chairs and deans should realize that conference posters are a routine part of academic presentations, and invest accordingly.

Posters force you to think about what you’re doing


“Posters take an enormous amount of time to prepare,” Cheung writes, “whereas presentation slides can be (and frequently are) prepared on the flight over to the conference.” This is a feature of posters, not a bug. You have to think about your content in advance, and make hard decisions about what you are going to include. When you print a poster, your work is mostly done. Making a PowerPoint deck on the plane trip is rushed, half-assed preparation in comparison. If you make a PowerPoint deck on the plane, you still have to practice delivering the talk so that you don’t go over time. At least you should!

Cheung notes “travelling with a poster can be cumbersome. Because of their length, poster tubes technically exceed carry-on size restrictions(.)” I have no doubt this happens sometimes, but it seems to be vanishingly small. I know of nobody personally who’s had a problem taking a poster on a plane. Getting a laptop through security seems almost as bothersome.

Cheung’s next section has the header, “most academic posters are a visual nightmare.” Well, yeah, that’s what keeps this blog in business. But so are most PowerPoint talks.

We can do better on poster accessibility


Cheung’s most important argument is about the accessibility of posters. This is an important conversation, and one that I don’t think conference organizers and presenters think about enough.

Posters are a visual medium, which poses a problem for someone with poor or no eyesight. Cheung argues that “oral presentations give people with visual disabilities immediate access to at least some of the content.” This is true if there is no presenter at a poster. If there is a presenter at a poster, however, the one-on-one nature of a poster presentation means that a presenter can more readily adjust the discussion to take into account the visual issues of the listener. A presenter giving a talk is unlikely to adjust the talk to accommodate anyone in the audience with a visual issue. (See this post about the experience of a blind colleague listening to conference presentations. Also see this post about a blind poster presenter.)

I have also seen posters incorporating 3D printed elements, which could make some aspects accessible to a visually impaired people in a way that a talk could not do.

Some conferences are videorecording talks, which can again make content available to visually impaired people. Some people are archiving posters online, and I thought standard text to voice tools would be able to help this problem.

I pulled up a PDF of my last poster, and asked Acrobat Reader to read out loud. Reader’s “read out loud” was not working for any document, but Acrobat Standard did read it. I learned that the kerning I did to make the poster look better disrupted the text recognition: it treated words where I had moved a letter as separate words. Hyphenated words were also read as separate words. I learned that if I was to archive posters, I should include a plain text version in the description. Like most issues around accessibility, this is not an unsolvable problem.

Cheung argues that posters are horrible for learning, citing ideas about glucose use that sounds rather similar to some contentious ideas about sugar and willpower. She argues that academic posters are too complex to learn from. I agree that most posters are too complex: this is, again, one of the reasons this blog exists. It is seems to me that any form of academic communication faces this problem.

Posters help start dialogue


Cheung suggests more short talks as alternatives to posters. This looks sensible on the face of it. Most people prefer talks, both as a presenter and an audience member. I love talks in the Ignite format. They can work well for small meetings. But I have extreme doubts that they can replace poster sessions or many meetings. The number of presenters is too large, and there is not enough space or time to accommodate them.

I also worry that a whole bunch of five minute talks will blur together in memory. It is hard to stand out when you have four or five talks an hour; imagine if you are sitting through 10 talks an hour. For eight hours. For several days.

Talks, by their nature, are synchronous “one to many” communications, typically with limited time for discussions. (And can you image the difficulty in people switching from room to room every five minutes?) Posters are more complex. Audience members can listen to the speaker at different times. The format permits conversations in ways that talks don’t.

The other main suggestion she has is for conference organizers to building in more networking time. Those hallway conversations are often the best thing about conferences. But just having “the explicit expectation that people with similar research interests can use that time to find each other and chat” is, perhaps, overly optimistic. Talking to strangers is hard. You can’t just put people in room and expect conversations to flow freely. Having a “social object” like a poster helps people identify others with similar interests, and gives them something to talk about.

Poster sessions fill a niche. Posters provide a straightforward way for a listener to identify who is working on topics they are interested in. (There is rarely enough time to read all the article titles in the abstract book, but you can easily scan rows of posters to find who is doing what.) Posters give people more opportunities to talk individually, and to take as much or as little time as possible.

I agree with a lot of Cheung’s points, but not the conclusion that we should kill all poster sessions. Let’s make posters better rather than abandoning them.

External links

The Zen of Presentations, Part 34: Lessons from the blind
The Zen of Presentations, Part 40: Lighting a fire under speakers

Hat tip to Mary Ellen Foster.

02 November 2017

Critique: Life in the cold

Max Showalter had the worst possible poster experience. The thing we all dread. Max wrote:

I recently presented this poster at a large conference and of the thousands of people walking by literally no one stopped to look at my poster. Ignoring that could just be me (I thought I was charming!), could you provide some feedback on what aspects of the poster might be telling people “keep walking”?

Ouch. I feel for you, Max.

What happened? Let’s have a look at Max’s poster, which he gave at the 2017 Association for the Science of Limnology and Oceanography “Aquatic Sciences” meeting. Click to enlarge!


Max’s poster is far from the worst I’ve seen. The layout is clean and the colours are attractive. Why didn’t it find an audience? As journalists say, this poster “buries the lede.” I think the issue is there is no clear entry point.

For starters, the title is maybe a little small, and what it says is not helpful to me. I know what “low temperature” and “taxis” are. But I do not know what a “psychorphile” is.

I don’t recognize the species name. I don’t know if it’s a fish or a flea. It’s a good idea to try to put sort of plain English common name in titles for that reason. In this case, the title might have said, “the marine bacterium Colwellia psychrerythraea.” To make matters worse, the poster switches from the full species name to Cp34h with no warning. If you are glancing at the poster, that is another little obstacle.

The title says what the poster is about, but not what it found. The result numbered “1” give what may have made for a more compelling title: “a new low temperature record for chemotaxis.”

A record? People love records and extremes! I might have just made that phrase alone the title of the poster. Extremes are scientifically interesting, because they tell us about what the limits of possibility are.

The question right below the title helps bring some clarity that the title itself didn’t. But it’s too small, and not high contrast enough. The answer to that question is a block of text that is in a small point size, and stretches all the way across the width of the poster, making it hard to read.

The layout of the three sections of the results is good. But bar graphs are so generic that they don’t help me know what this poster is about.

The iceberg graphic in bottom third is promising. The idea of an infographic is awesome; it just needs refinement to clarify what you are looking at. It is a little unclear that I am supposed to be looking at an iceberg, rather than just a shape.

Finally, the future work section is trying too cram too much stuff in not enough space. Pictures are too close, the type is not laid out consistently (sometimes centered, sometimes not), and boxes overlap boxes.

There may be other ways to clarify and improve this poster, but I think the lack of turnout is due to a failure in the top third of the poster.

Fortunately, Max did have a happier story to tell:

I recently made another conference poster using some tips from your website and won the first place poster prize! Thanks for all the help!

No, Max, thank you. Contributors like you keep this blog alive!

26 October 2017

Link roundup for October 2017

This month’s link round-up begins with a big tutorial on making posters by Desi Quintans, “How I make conference posters.”

Excerpt:

About my design ethos

I think that visual design is just as important as content. I believe that by adapting lessons from other fields of publishing, we can design posters that are unconventional and surprising, and yet attractive to look at and informative to read. The alternative is to be cursed with posters that all look the same.

This lengthy piece covers some material that’s familiar to regular readers, but provides it in a convenient one-stop shop. It’s this month’s “must read!”

•••••


Nichloas Rowe has authored Academic & Scientific Poster Presentation: A Modern Comprehensive Guide for Springer. I may have a longer review later, but wanted to bring this to people’s attention now.

•••••

Earyn McGee also has a thread on Twitter that describes her lessons as an early poster presenter, presenting at the SACNAS 2017 conference. Hat tip to Toby.

•••••

Dan Quintana also provides helpful advice, but it’s more concise.

Can it be read by three people standing three meters away after three beers?

That’s the whole thing.

•••••

An academic poster in a cartoon style.


Hat tip to Rainer Melzer.

•••••

Kayla Brandi makes a cape of her poster.


Hat tip to Juan Ruiz and Auriel Fournier.

•••••

Amber Dance has a nice feature in Nature on what makes for a good conference. The take aways are that you need to create “hallway conversation,” have a diverse group of people, and pick a good location.

•••••

Up for discussion in the PeerJ preprint server by Foster and colleagues is a discussion paper on “Good Practice for Conference Abstracts and Presentations.” Here’s what they say about posters:

3.2 Posters

3.2.1 While it is technically possible to make posters permanently available (e.g. on conference websites or platforms such as F1000 Research), some journals regard this as prior publication so it may prevent full publication. Authors should therefore check the policies of their target journal(s) before agreeing to a poster being publicly posted.

3.2.2 Posters are not peer-reviewed by conferences and may not describe all aspects of the research . Posters should therefore not be viewed as a substitute for a full article in a peer-reviewed journal. However, if a poster is publicly available (and, ideally, searchable via an indexing system or DOI ) it may be cited until the full publication is available (although some journals consider citation of posters as unpublished information rather than full citations).

3.2.3 The lead author (e.g. principal investigator) should be given the first option to attend the poster session(s) but this role may be taken by other authors or a local presenter (if the authors do not speak the language of the conference). The poster presenter should be agreed before the abstract is submitted.

Hat tip to Jackie Marhington and PeerJ.

•••••

Mice, as depicted in scientific journals:


This collection, curated by Neuroskeptic, is a good opportunity to think about the choices behind each figure. No two are the same. Which ones work, and which ones don’t?

•••••

Jared Spool said:

“Great designers do not fall in love with their solution. Great designers fall in love with the problem.”

Hat tip to Julie Dirksen.

•••••

Men ask more questions than women in conference sessions. I wonder if this holds true in poster sessions, too? Hat tip to Amy Hinsley and Joshua Drew.

•••••

When competing for attention, playing against expectations can be powerful:


Hat tip to Jason and Asia Murphy.

•••••

Kimm Hannula has a little Twitter thread about how conferences can create “social capital.”

19 October 2017

Critique and makeover: Bird sperm

Today’s poster is a contribution from Antje Girndt, who presented this at the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) 2017 meeting in Groningen, the Netherlands. Click to enlarge!


Antje was kind enough to write her own analysis of this poster:

It uses a Dutch colour theme and comes with little text. The introduction is pushed to the bottom and I am almost not explaining the methods. QR codes link to my profile and the accompanying data and script at the Open Science Framework. ...

I like my final product but at the same time, I am not fully satisfied. The lower bit with the bullets, affiliations and references somehow bugs me, but I cannot pinpoint why.

Antje’s approach is very much in line with the style I have been moving towards lately: make a simple, big statement up top. I think it could have been an even stronger title if the title said “why it matters.” Maybe something like “Sampling methods affect bird sperm data” or “Bird sperm should only be collected with one method.”

Despite the title being large, it feels less prominent than it should be because the colours are so muted. The authors are jumping out, when the title should be. I would have flipped the colours of the title and authors: used dark text for the authors, and white text for the main text. The shadowing on the title is not helping the cause, either, because it is reducing the contrast between the text and background.

I would also have put a little space between each graphic element; the two pictures and the graph. The two pictures, in particular, don’t clearly separate out visually.

Maybe Antje’s concern about the bottom half of the poster springs from a couple of things. I think each element  needed more vertical space between them. It also seemed to me that the “Future studies” statement was a stronger as a concluding sentence. The placement of the QR codes breaks the logical flow of the text.

Here is a quick revision that tries to address those issues:


It has more punch from a distance and flows better.

There are a few other things that I might change that I didn’t put in the revision above. The key graph on the right is a little tricky to interpret. I think each line is an individual. The mean is highlighted, but the difference between the average and the raw data could be enhanced even a title more. There is a lot of white on either side of the data.

The typeface is a handwritten script that is attractive, but is all capitals. This might make it a little harder to read.

The institutional affiliations are listed in footnotes at the bottom. I’m unsure about this. On the one hand, affiliations are the sort of disposable information that footnotes are made for. On the other, if you are going to list affiliations, it makes sense to put them at the point of need. It’s also weird that institutional affiliations come between the references about sperm. The references are incomplete, too. No volume or page numbers.

The QR codes do not follow a good practice: there is no description of what I get if I scan them. There is plenty of white space around them, so it would have been easy to include a description of what each is.

If you want to compare the poster to the final paper, the published paper is here.