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As someone who has been associated very closely with poster presentations, I have to say, it is time for a change.
A little less than a month ago, a National Public Radio (NPR) piece appeared about a reimagining of scientific poster presentations (1). As someone who has been associated very closely with poster presentations, I have to say, it is time for a change. The gist of “Poster 2.0” is to use the primary poster space to clearly communicate the take-home message of your work. The main message should not be buried among a slew of text and graphics, but placed front and center, to gain attention. A quick response (QR) code accompanies the message to let poster viewers access virtually a more complete account of the study. Some other supporting information may be placed around the main message on the periphery.
I consider this a great idea, and my viewpoints are manifold. My involvement in poster presentations has been quite extensive.
First, I promote the presentation of posters as part of the development of students and scientists. At this past 2019 American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) conference, my group presented five posters. This brought my group’s all-time total of presented posters to over 300, in 14 years. That is a lot of posters to proof and analyze, and each time I ask whether the poster adequately conveys the desired message and research.
Second, I have organized multiple conferences, the most recent being the 43rd International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography (ISCC), and the 16th GCxGC symposium in Ft. Worth, Texas. In chemistry conferences, poster presentations always figure prominently. They are an efficient way to put on display a lot of scientific advancement, as well as to pull attendees into an inviting space to, ideally, talk about the science on display. At the last ISCC and GCxGC, we had just over 100 posters presented.
Third, I have been a judge for poster sessions on many occasions. I cannot say it is the most enjoyable thing for me to do. Now that I think about it, it is a lot like trying to find a needle in a haystack. What is the major advance here? is it significant? Can the presenter adequately convince me of her efforts? How well does this presenter and his work stack up against everyone else?
I cannot say that I have delved into the literature or assessed the different modalities for poster presentations, or found any research that says that a certain format is better. Such information probably exists. This is a gut-instinct response.
Give credit to Mike Morrison, a doctoral student in psychology at Michigan State. He finally took a chance and tried to make his poster presentation more inviting and informative. He grappled with an issue that every graduate student considers: How do I make my work more noticeable among the sea of other presentations? Give him credit for considering a minimalist approach: Less is more. Let’s use the bulk of the printed poster space to convey the primary discovery of our work. Brilliant.
It was an “aha” moment when, early on in our group’s poster presentations, I used to make the students include a section on “Key Points and Takeaways.” I do not still enforce that, but it was something that my colleagues noticed and said that they had liked. I am not sure why I stopped requiring this section. The goal of the section was to convey the motivation, the study design, and the main findings in just three to four bullet points. That makes sense; this is the type of concise message that poster viewers want to see.
At the ASMS conference, thousands of posters are spread over multiple days of presentations. Many new posters are posted every day and researchers stand eagerly by for the opportunity to engage someone interested. When I attend those sessions, the best I can do is to find the topic areas of my interest, and then walk around surveying poster titles. I might spend a couple of minutes at a title I like; at that point, if it looks very useful, I put a card in the envelope and request a reprint, and then generally move on. I might engage a few people in a discussion, but to get through hundreds of posters in a few hours, it feels sort of like being a battlefield medic. “Sorry budding scientist. I am sure you would like to present your work to me, so that I can fully understand the value of how you have spent your waking hours last year, but I really need to get through the rest of these posters to make sure I don’t miss anything.” (I am sure I missed some things).
At ISCC and GCxGC, I heard the laments of some students who only talked to a couple of people-probably judges-during the couple hours of the poster session. I know that their work was of significant interest, because it came out of my lab (winking emoji), but why did it not draw the attention of passersby? We have a lot of experience making posters, and we are pretty good at it, so why wasn’t there more engagement and discussion? Maybe the main message was lost among the multitude of text and graphics.
As a poster judge, one of the things I dislike the most is the presenter who is going to dominate my time and talk for way longer than necessary. It makes me wary-like someone stepping onto the used car lot to find a vehicle. All the while the presenter is talking, I am scanning the poster to try to find the main points. Experience has made me good at this, and I can often deflect the long-winded overview with a pointed question or two, once I have found the information I sought.
But why should it be like that?
I really like Mike’s idea, because it gets to the point. The poster becomes a billboard for your work. The attendees don’t have to exit the highway to understand what you are selling. Chances are, if you are selling something good, and you can convey that in say, 20 words or less in 120-point font, then the attendees would be more likely to make a pit-stop to chat about the work-or at least scan the QR code. I know I would.
I also don’t think anything is lost in using this minimalist approach. Sure, the poster contains less information on its own, but imagine what can be designed virtually to showcase that work. The link to associated information in the form of a QR code is powerful. If someone likes your billboard message that much, then there really is no limit to what you could design to entice viewers who visited your website to learn more.
Is there an app for that? I really do not know, but there should be. Most major conferences now have an app. Do they allow you to scan the QR codes of the posters that you visit at the conference in order to collate the posters that interested you the most-so you can go learn more?
Actually, I believe ASMS instituted something like that this year. I failed to have a QR code posted next to the poster I presented, and people asked me about it. Next year, I will, and so will my students.
I think Poster 2.0, in this embodiment, has many nice advantages that could make poster sessions more productive. It certainly does not hurt to have students succinctly and concisely state the main advances of their work. Place that message front and center as 60% of your poster space and see what happens. It is like removing the forest so that passersby do not have to work hard to really see the trees of interest. I have to say, I am going to have to give it a try at my next conference. It will be interesting to see who else tries, as well. I am guessing I will take notice of those that do.
Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.