14 December 2017

Critique: Badger parasites

Today’s poster comes from Rachel Byrne. Click to enlarge!


Rachel was kind enough to respond to my request to share this, which I think is just a delightful work. It demonstrates the old adage that necessity is often the parent of invention. This wasn’t supposed to be a poster. Rachel explains (lightly edited):

To be completely honest I had applied for a talk at the 32nd Mustelid Colloquium held in Lyon, but they didn’t have space so offered me a poster. That’s when I began to panic. I am just one year into my project and did not have any real statistic analysis (which I think is often present on posters). Because my topic is very much about parasites, I also was a little worried that a bunch of behavioural ecologists and mustelid enthusiasts wouldn’t be that interested/familiar with parasitology jargon, so I might have to spend half my poster space on definitions etc.

As badgers live in underground burrow systems called setts, I wanted to use this as a way of laying out my poster. As I’m a keen (but not very good) artist I played around with the idea of drawing out my poster.

Author Dan Roam is often faced with people who say, “I can’t draw.” He replies, “Everyone can draw, even people who know they can’t.” I think Rachel undersells her skills. I’ve lettered comics by hand (Time City #5), and it’s not easy to get hand drawn text to look as as consistent and readable as Rachel did here.

Rachel continues:

I wanted it to be very clear and easy to read and, and very importantly, eye catching. I posted a preview on Twitter and it received a very positive response. I think at poster session the key is getting people over to talk to you and ask questions. I decided to include my twitter handle rather than my email address which I think demonstrates the move for a more social and communicative science community.


To quote Dan Roam relevant here is again, “Hand-drawn pictures make people smile, and smiling people think better.” And it’s hard not to look at Rachel’s poster and not smile. There is a charm to something so obviously personal.

In a time when computers are everywhere, and it’s easy to pop together a few pictures and text blocks in a computer file, something hand drawn is going to be remarkable. It will be worth talking about.

And people were definitely talking. Despite being started in a moment of slight desperation. Rachel’s efforts were rewarded with a first place prize poster!

Rachel may not go that route every time, though:

I definitely won’t be drawing every poster for conferences but I think if it’s a friendly and accepting group, it can be very fun!

07 December 2017

Critique: baby heads

Today’s poster comes to us courtesy of Laura Steinmann, presented at the 2018 American Nurses Association conference. Click to enlarge!


She writes:

I developed a 4 foot by 8 foot poster which is crammed with great info, and that’s the problem. ... The poster is less data and more instructional, based on two publications I wrote to teach providers how to recognize asymmetry.

Laura went on to say that she used a poster template provided on a commercial site. Coincidentally, the last talk I gave on posters, one of the questions from the end was about whether I knew any sites with good poster templates. This is a good example of why I try to steer people away from templates. People slap up templates that are... not necessarily very good.

Let’s look at just the template background, with the content removed:


The space alloted for the title and author is tiny. The space between the columns, and the margins around them, are also tiny. A poster maker would be better served if those areas were larger:


I’m still not crazy about this as a template for a poster, but I think it would have gotten someone off to a better start.

I agree with Laura’s self assessment: this poster is crammed. I often complain that people try to turn a manuscript into a poster, and in this case, there are two manuscripts residing on this poster. While I absolutely sympathize with the desire to tell a complete story, the complete story exists in the papers. They do not need to exist in the poster.

The first column is perhaps both the best. It is the best because it has a clear, wonderful diagram that Laura created (highlighted at right). Laura’s diagrams are very good, and I wish they were bigger and more prominent. They convey so much information.

The first column, unfortunately, also features some inconsistent typesetting. And it is crammed. For instance, several paragraphs in the first column might be cut down to a couple of sentences: “Infants’ skull growth is affected by internal factors, such as the normal malleability of the skull. Skull growth is also affected by external factors, such as the positioning of infants.”

There are about 1,800 words on this poster. While I personally never aim for some particular arbitrary target number, other people have had good success with posters containing a few hundred words.

Ruthless editing is hard. But that is what this poster needed.

Update: Laura sent me her revised version of the poster. Click to enlarge!


So. Much. Better.

Yes, it is still crammed. I would still want to cut down the number of words and resize some things. For instance, the references might be printed in a smaller point size. That would free up some space to make the takeaway messages in that column bigger and bolder for the viewer.

But the title is readable from a distance. The images are bigger. There’s less distracting background. The typography is consistent. It’s more inviting and interesting looking.

I particularly like the thin line running along the left side of the headings. It provides a little definition to the columns, but is subtle, and is a nice graphic touch.

30 November 2017

Link round-up for November 2017

The link roundup after the massive Neuroscience meeting is always fun. Just ask Shaena Montanari, “How big is that meeting?”

Was at the bar tonight in DC and saw poster tubes... I’m not even a neuroscientist and I knew. #SfN17

With tens of thousands of posters, I find classics like this, from Steve Ramirez:

Always check your dimensions before printing.


I have written before about how people incorporated video into their poster demonstrations (QR codes, iPdas, etc.). But this is the first time I have seen anyone do a virtual reality (VR) demo at a poster:


Advice from Caitlin Vanderweele:

Convince your labmate to carry the poster tube.

Justin Kiggins noted:

Incredible how many posters at #SfN17 have "Preprint available at @biorxivpreprint" & a DOI/QR #asapbio

Coffee & Science asked:

Poster session didn’t go well?


• • • • •

Everything old is new again. Fabric posters have been done since the 17th century:


The thesis of François Marescot, printed on silk, is on display at the British Musuem. Hat tip to Raychelle Burks.

• • • • •

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a bit the relative accessibility of posters. I am pleased to be directed to this preprint on making scientific presentations of all sorts, inclduing posters, more accessible.

Hat tip to Simon Goring and Toby (itatiVCS).

• • • • •

May Gun has been curating a list of unusual scientific graphics.

• • • • •

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this conference guide by Errant Science from late last year before .


Hat tip to Helena and Prachee Avasthi.

• • • • •

Today in type crimes:


Punctuation makes a difference. Hat tip to John Lopez and Mark Siddall.

• • • • •

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 those are niche audiences, not broad.)

I appreciate Mammody coming to defence:

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.