Platform and Poster Presentations

I had the wonderful opportunity to give a platform presentation at last year’s meeting in San Francisco. I even wrote about the experience for the BPS Blog. This year I presented a poster at yesterday’s afternoon sessions. As both represented my first such experiences at major national conferences (I’d previously only gone to smaller specialty meetings), they offered an interesting opportunity for a compare and contrast. Credit for this idea goes to my girlfriend, who listened to me talk about this and suggested I write it down.

Obviously, they are very different experiences, but in a sense they are also quite similar. I’ve been led to believe that for a poster, you need a well-crafted elevator pitch, with your work condensed into two to three minutes. By this standard, you certainly have more time for a platform – fifteen minutes. In reality, that is hardly any time at all! I’ve never practiced a poster presentation, but I spent days poring over my slides for the platform talk, rehearsing and then re-rehearsing it again and again to perfect my timing, my transitions, and my tone. I had ten slides finally, which I still worried was too long; I like to build up my story with a solid introduction, and this occupied three post-title slides. I have found that, especially in the thematic platform sessions, presenters often skip detailed introductions, relying on the audience to be well-informed ahead of time. I chose not to do this, in part because it helps me settle into a groove and helps me provide context for certain aspects of my work. As a compromise, I limited my talk to a portion of my research that I thought would be of interest to a large audience, rather than doing a data dump. There is definitely a skill to doing this, and I don’t think it is innate by any means, certainly not for me.

The experience of presenting to an audience of 50-75 people was excellent. But, there was hardly any time for questions; I got just one after my talk, although a couple of people approached me after the session. (Full disclosure: I already knew them both. But, you take what you can get.)

Yesterday’s poster session was an engaging experience. The organizers clearly did a great job organizing the posters into research groups. My section was filled with presenters in similar fields as me, and I ended up exchanging “war-stories” with many like-minded individuals. The presentations were overall informal discussions about experiments and conclusions, although a couple of people asked me to give them a run-through of my whole poster. The opportunity for feedback was instantaneous, and extremely valuable. I learned a lot from the dozen or so people I conversed with yesterday, both in terms of criticism of my research and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of my communication style. I had previously only brought posters to small, specialty conferences, where the poster sessions tended to be sparsely attended (mainly because you end up discussing your work with folks informally anyway).

I should probably say which one I prefer, but I’m going to punt and say that both experiences are extremely valuable (which is true) and I highly recommend to all students to pursue these opportunities persistently to help get the most out of your graduate school experience. (And if you’re located in the Midwest and looking for such an opportunity in the next few months, I can certainly help you out).