I’m stepping away from the mental health focussed posts for a few weeks to bring you a new ‘conference series’. The plan is to help with decisions around presenting at conferences and to also provide handy guides to producing presentations that will help you communicate your work as succinctly and professionally as possible. Of course, I can’t completely step away from the self-care approach to studies, so this week’s post, which helps you decide between either a poster presentation or an oral presentation offers practical considerations but also personal factors to take into account in order to do what is right for you. I hope you enjoy this new series!
I’ve had a number of conversations in the last couple of years about what format to present in at a conference. These have included me asking my supervisor ‘which should I do?” and also colleagues sharing experiences about what the opted for. The general consensus, from what I can tell, is that your choice between a poster or an oral presentation depends on a number of factors.
What is the purpose of your presentation?
Firstly, it is important to consider what the purpose of your presentation will be and what content you will be sharing. If your purpose is to get feedback about some work in progress, or perhaps a research protocol, you might want to consider a poster, as this will allow you to maximise interactions with other delegates – you can talk to multiple people at once, they can offer you feedback on the spot, or they can come back to you. Ultimately, with a poster there tends to be more room for discussion and you can check in with people along the way to ensure they are understanding what you are saying – you can’t ‘lose’ them like you might in a talk. A poster presentation session is usually more casual than an oral presentation, but this doesn’t mean that it is any less important or credible and posters can be an excellent way to get experience of conferences for the first time in a way that isn’t too demanding or intimidating.
On the other hand, if you are wanting to share some polished research that is done and dusted and close to publication, you may want to consider an oral presentation. This allows a more ‘linear’ approach, whereby what you say is (usually) planned out, as opposed to a poster where you might deviate away from and return to certain points. For oral presentation’s you are given a set time to communicate your research, and though the discussion might not be as in-depth as a poster, there is usually time for questions at the end. Being put ‘on the spot’ during question time can feel daunting, but this is an excellent opportunity to practice answering questions at a time when you might be feeling nervous – perfect training for your final viva/thesis defence! Oral presentations also give you the opportunity to practice presenting which may be helpful if you are considering teaching in the future. Or a more short-term basis – presenting to an audience is good if you are thinking about future research avenues as comments from the audience may spark ideas. They are also useful if you are submitting a paper to a journal, as you might be alerted to some of the queries reviewers might have when looking over your submission. All is not lost in terms of discussion when it comes to oral presentations, as though question time is often limited, you can encourage delegates to come and find you in a break if they have any questions – or you could provide business cards and be sure to put your contact details on your presentation slides.
What practicalities do you need to consider?
There are also some very practical elements to consider when trying to decide between a poster presentation or an oral presentation. I often hear of academics struggling to get their posters onto flights when they have only booked hand luggage, and it costs them a fortune to get their precious poster tube on board! There are of course ways around this, you could opt for a fabric poster – which I have used and find brilliant. Not only do they pack up really small for easy transport – they are also easy to store once you are back from your conference. One downside of posters however, is that you have to consider the cost of printing. Depending on the size requirements you could have quite a hefty price to pay to get your poster printed and ready to be displayed.
Oral presentations however, do not have this issue. You are able to bring your presentation with you on the day on a USB stick or laptop. This also gives you the added bonus of being able to tweak your presentation right up until the few minutes before you present. For some this might be good, for others who struggle with perfectionist tendencies, this might be terrible! For anxious types however, if you can resist tweaking it there is less of a chance of losing your presentation like you might a poster – you can back it up, email it to yourself and have it on your USB stick. Even if you leave your USB on the train/plane/bus you can still have a copy. This isn’t so easy when it comes to a poster, you can certainly get posters printed last-minute, but it would involve some stress you might want to avoid.
What is right for you?
In addition to the purpose of your presentation and the practical elements, it is also really important to take into account what is best for you. Whilst it is important to challenge our comfort zones and develop new skills, standing and talking to an audience might just be too nerve-wracking for you at your first conference. Equally, a more ‘sociable’ poster presentation might feel like too much of a challenge. We all have different levels of acceptability when it comes to anxiety, stage fright and social interactions, so it is important to consider which option between a poster and an oral presentation will allow you to be at your best, whilst also helping you to develop as a person.
The most important thing to remember is that if you feel comfortable, or at least you are able to tolerate a certain level of discomfort without causing yourself any distress by choosing one option over another, that is what matters. You are better off doing a poster presentation well than pushing yourself to do an oral presentation and really struggling. In contrast, if you can handle public speaking to an audience but would struggle with the more one-to-one interactions, then maybe an oral presentation is the way to go.
I’d love to hear if you have any comments or stories about your choices when it comes to presenting at conferences!
Until next time 🙂