Poster or talk?

A few weeks ago, at a conference, I was talking about posters with some people. Not the specific posters that were at the meeting, but posters in general.
I have only ever had to present posters at department poster days, and never had anything interesting enough to warrant printing at poster-size when the poster day came around, so got stuck with the loose paneling, glue covered, home-made science-fair-style poster that nobody wants to look at.
Although, that would make it easier. It’s the fact that a few people do want to look at it – if only to mercilessly judge it – that brings me to the next problem I have with posters. When people come by your poster, they sometimes ask you to run through the whole story, but you can tell from how their eyes drift over your poster, glancing at the wrong panels, that they’re not really listening. Or, worse, they interrupt you in the middle of the important bit to ask a question that you were going to answer in exactly a sentence-and-a-half from now if only they hadn’t broken your flow. And while you’re in the middle of talking to them, new people walk up, and try to follow the conversation, but they’re completely lost, so they read the intro over other people’s heads, don’t ever catch up to the story, and walk away.

Me briefly capturing people’s attention with one of my glued-together posters for at least long enough for it to be photographed.
I much prefer giving talks, and would tick the “I would like to give a talk!” box every year. Giving a talk was considered one of the awards at poster day, and I only got it once, but it was so much better than doing the posters. Let me tell you why…
The many benefits of giving a talk instead of presenting a poster:

  • Yes, you have to make slides, but you need to do that anyway at some point, and you probably already have slides. Besides, even if you need to make new ones, you will use them again, even if they need a little modification and updating. That poster? Pretty, but old news next year.
  • You need to talk to an entire audience, but they’re gonna let you finish even though Beyonce had one of the best science presentations of all time. Or something. In any case, they’re keeping quiet until the question round, and they will only ask relevant questions, because they’ve heard the whole talk by then.
  • You only need to talk once, and not every time someone else walks up. Everyone is already there!
  • No judging! You are already a winner!
    But every time I have this conversation with people, including this time, I learn that I am in fact crazy, and that everyone prefers making a poster for days and standing next to it for hours over giving a 15-minute talk with slides you had hanging around anyway.

So, which do you prefer – poster or talk?

15 thoughts on “Poster or talk?”

  1. Ann Fenech says:

     Oh! Great to see that someone else thinks the way I do! Hanging around next to posters smiling and nodding while trying to make sure I talk to people who want to be talked to and leave others alone (and always ending up caught up with someone who just wants to tell me about their work/life/hobbies/etc rather than discuss the work) is not exactly my idea of fun either :). Phew – maybe I’m not as crazy as I thought I was?

  2. Ben K says:

    Great blog and I agree! Posters are more work and often get you a smaller audience. The only good thing is that (if you are genuinely interested) its possible to talk at length with the presenter.

  3. Payal Joshi says:

    I love to give oral presentations for the similar reasons as you have cited here. In fact, I realized that in the early academic scenario, conferences only encouraged oral sessions. But today, there are just too many entries and submissions that the organisers resort to posters. This has resulted in that the papers with "not-so" exciting science to end up as a poster. Consequently this is also leading to poor papers entering the bandwagon. 

    The people you are talking about who like posters are probably too nervous to face the scientists asking serious queries on their results or lack communication skills. Why would anyone in their sane mind like to just stand by their posters and gaze at the hall, waiting for every single passerby to look at your poster or worst, just glance away. 

    Not only are the poster sessions boring, but also making them is an odd task. The width of posters keep varying and carrying them, if you have a presentation somewhere in distant countries makes it even worse. 


  4. Eva Amsen says:

    Thanks for all the feedback so far.

    Personally I find it much scarier to field questions from someone standing right next to me. My least favourite poster moment was when a famous cell biologist guest speaker grilled me about the minute details of a poster, and I felt that I would have done a much better job explaining the experiments to them if I had been on a stage and they were in the audience.

  5. Markus Muellner says:

    There are some positive sides to a poster as well – you have instant feedback if what you just said was convincing or not.

    It is also a great way to learn to keep people’s attention and make a presentation exciting.

    In a talk you will never know if half your audience is drifting away because you lost them (well, sometimes you can see the "you lost me" looks on their faces – but we have all trained to look interested while sleeping inside during our PhDs right?).

  6. Tom Webb says:

     Yep, I’d talk too every time. And not just because I like the sound of my own voice… As a viewer, I find poster sessions overwhelming, and am not sure I’ve ever read one the whole way through – I tend to just walk past at a brisk pace (usually en route for the free drink with which they bribe you to attend) on the off chance something interesting will stick.

    As a presenter, as well as the awkwardness of carrying around an A0 poster compared to a memory stick, there is also the cost (around £50 to get a poster printed nicely, vs. free).

    Although I’m off to a conference in September (the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity), where they are replacing posters with ‘digital objects’, and I’m interested to see how that goes.

  7. Richard Wintle says:


    Talk – need to make pretty figures and accompanying text on a computer, talk for 10 or 20 minutes

    Poster – need to make pretty figures and accompanying text on a computer, then print them out, cut to size, glue onto cardboard, pack and take with you, or find a printing service to print full-size poster, carry poster tube with you on airplane, in either case hang the darn thing up, then stand next to it for at least one long session

    From an irritation point of view alone, I’m going "talk" every time. Not that I do any research any more, mind.

  8. Tine Janssens says:

    I think I ticked the wrong box…


    I’ve never done posters, but I am sure I’ll prefer talks anyway. I love to interact one-on-one with people, but glueing myself to cardboards: not that fun.

  9. Nicolau Werneck says:

    I don’t think I can pick up a favourite. Talks are definitely superior, because they are generally more visible. You will spread your word to more people. But posters can be more personal… Usually only people who are really interested in your work will come by to talk to you, while in talks there are usually many uninterested expectators. And you can have real conversations with a poster, and not just the superficial question-answering that usually happen after talks, and that can become an awkward moment sometimes when someone asks a tough question.

    Every time you present a poster to someone you can tailor your speech to the people you are talking to, and each presentation is a small rehersal to the next. And you can stop any time to start talking about any subject, and also easily locate specific facts from your presentation in your poster to talk about it. So it is great for testing ideas, and getting feedback, etc. Great for a research that is not too advanced yet, or for more controversial topics maybe. Talks are better for more developed subjects… You _want less interaction_ in talks.

    So I prefer giving talks because they usually mean your work is already quite mature and solid and important, but I do enjoy presenting posters better because it’s more personal, you get to really talk about your work. With talks you need to spend nights rehearsing again and again, get worried about you time, etc, and in the end it’s usually a bit disappointing (too little feedback). When you prepare a poster you write it a bit like and article, and don’t expect much feedback, but end up having one or two interesting onversations about your work.

  10. Zen Faulkes says:

    Judging from some of the comments here, people might be finding posters more work than slides because they are using the wrong tools.

    Many people make posters in PowerPoint, which was not intended for large graphics projects. There are programs that are much better at making posters (I like Publisher), and there are even ones custom made just for making posters (Poster Genius comes to mind).

    Comments about cutting and pasting paper for posters is also interesting. Large format printers are not all that difficult to find now, so that it is possible to print a poster as one sheet of paper.

    It sounds like a lot of people are doing the equivalent of opening a stuck jar with a screwdriver: yeah, it might help, but it’s going to be a lot easier if you just find a jar opener. The right ools for the right job make all the difference.

    For people who want to learn more efficient ways of making posters, I write a blog called Better Posters. I’d love to help.

  11. Eva Amsen says:

    But are these tools free? For a lab that makes maybe 3 posters per year, if that, extra software isn’t worth it – let alone a printer for each lab. My former institute charged at least $10 to print a poster on the big printer, and when you have to pay this yourself as a grad student, it’s cheaper to get some paper at the dollar store and assemble it yourself.

  12. Zen Faulkes says:

    On the software side:

    Publisher is part of the Microsoft Office package (though not included in the most stripped-down MS Office bundle), so many people who have PowerPoint installed will also have Publisher.

    Open Office is free and has a component called Draw, which I reviewed here.

    Inkscape is free and quite powerful. I have just started playing around with it, so haven’t reviewed it yet.

    PosterGenius has a free trial version, which I reviewed here.

    On the printing side:

    Paying $10 for a more attractive poster that you don’t have to spend hours compiling seems like a good value to me. And I would daresay that many students’ supervisors would be willing to cough up a tenner for that.

    There is going to be variation from institution to institution as to what’s available. We have one large format printer shared between two departments, and our university library also has one. But if there isn’t one, it is probably good to ask about getting one. Lots of institutions have fees for these kinds of equipment, providing someone puts in a request and justification.

  13. Cecilia Fenech says:

     I am still in my first year of a PhD, and have presented 3 posters to date. I used the same poster at all meetings (2 conferences and 1 research day at our uni), since it is more of a background idea of my research. I loved that at one confrence we got a 1 minute oral presentation (just after the relevant oral session and not next to the poster), so that we could give some info about our research (we also got to use 1 slide). People interested in my research came to look me up after that which was good, as compared to people just running round looking at posters and just skimming the titles. However once I get some results and have something to present I will definitely go for the talk.

    My verdict…go for a poster in the beginning (in our uni we cannot go to a conference/meeting unless we are presenting something…so this way you are still ‘presenting’ and get to see what others are doing. I also got some good info form other people there. However, then I would opt for the talk.

  14. Tej Nishtala says:

    Cecilia’s comment reminds me of a summer school I attended last year. There were no oral presentations for the students except for the invited speakers. But the organisers did a very nice thing. The poster session was for 2days and the no.of posters per day is limited so that everybody has an opportunity to go through all the posters. That ofcourse, we see in most of the conferences. Apart from that, the students were asked to give in a crisp 1 min presentation, on an OHP,  the content of poster. That way it served both purposes of addressing a larger audience and also invite people to the poster giving it a personal touch.(With the clock was also fun!!!)

  15. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ve always found poster sessions incredibly frustrating, because a) they usually put all the related posters in the same session, so if you’re presenting you end up missing all the other posters that you’re interested in; and b) I didn’t like eating or drinking while presenting, but everyone visiting the poster would be holding delicious food and/or drinks, and I’d feel terribly deprived. So I always used to request a talk, too – and got them, as a postdoc (but not as a student).

    Worst poster presentation EVAH: I had the flu, and had to keep taking my sweater off when I got flushed, then putting it back on a few minutes later when I started shivering, then repeating the process almost immediately. I took my sweater off then on then off again then on again all while talking to just one person…. the conference was in Santa Fe, so I cured the flu that night using a chilli so hot I could barely eat it, four shots of tequila, a hot bath, and a good night’s sleep. Iwas fine the next morning.

Comments are closed.