The Scientific Conference Poster Session: Tips for Success

By Guest Blogger

This post was contributed by Brittany L. Uhlorn, a PhD Candidate at the University of Arizona.

Perhaps you’re about to present your first scientific poster, but unsure how best to prepare. Maybe you’re a presentation veteran, but have difficulty answering questions. Or perhaps you’re simply attending, but uncertain how to capitalize on your experience. No matter the reason for attending, your preparation and day-of game plan will ensure you have the most beneficial scientific conference experience possible.

Tips for poster session presenters

Prepare for success

You’ve put a great deal of thought into designing your poster – now it’s time to practice your delivery.

  • Consider your audience: Who will be attending the session, and what is their background relative to your research? Tailor your language to your audience so that they can digest what you’re saying, provide constructive criticism, and ask thought-provoking questions. For example, if you’re a virologist presenting at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting, you might consider including more background on how your virus of interest causes cancer, as well as therapeutic strategies to target it, than you typically would at a microbiology meeting.
  • Create an outline: Write key bullet points for what you would like to say to help build your presentation. For example, when thinking about discussing a figure, jot down the question you were trying to answer, the method you used, the main result, and the fundamental takeaway. Writing these points will help you remember what to say and provide your audience with a clear picture of your work.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Rehearse your presentation with people inside and outside your field. Your colleagues, lab mates, and PI can provide feedback on your technical presentation, but those outside of your field can point out places where you gloss over essential details or omit crucial background. Practice a few times while standing at your poster – it’s a different experience to practice while seated or with your poster on your computer screen than it is to pretend you’re standing at the session.

Present with confidence

Now that you’ve printed your poster and practiced a number of times, it’s time to expertly show off your science. 

  • Prepare the night before: To avoid rushing out the door without your poster, place it by your keys a day in advance. Dress for the venue and professionalism of the conference, and remember to wear comfortable shoes, as you will likely be spending a few hours on your feet. Pack water and snacks to keep you energized throughout the session, bring extra clips to hold up your poster, and pack a few business cards to tack up next to your poster.
  • Arrive early: You might be nervous before your poster session, or it may be held at an unfamiliar venue. Finding your poster board well ahead of time ensures you aren’t scrambling to tack up your poster seconds before the session begins. Plus, you’ll have extra time to practice at the actual venue.
  • Introduce yourself: I always find it odd when I walk up to someone’s poster, and then he/she dives right into the background without an introduction. If someone approaches your poster, introduce yourself and ask about his/her background. This will give you a chance to determine how to tailor your presentation so that it can be understood by your audience.
  • Use your poster as an aid: Have you ever gone up to a poster where the presenter spends the entire time talking to the poster, as opposed to engaging with you? Be sure to use your poster as a visual aid, not a crutch. Even the most prepared of us can find ourselves talking to our posters, so if you find yourself in this situation, take a moment to pause and ask your audience if they are following along. This will not only re-engage you with those who sought out your poster, but will also give you a chance to slow down and catch your breath before diving in to the next figure.
  • Remember your outline: Instead of getting bogged down in the minutia or coming off as a broken record, remember the outline you created for yourself. Hit the key bullet points and elaborate if your audience seems captivated.

Expertly navigate questions

Answering questions is arguably the most difficult part of a poster session, but with a little preparation and a few deep breaths the day-of, you’ll handle them with ease.

  • Anticipate questions: When practicing with your colleagues, ask them to brainstorm potential questions you may receive. People often ask about the relationship of your work to recently published papers or “hot topics,” so be sure to be well-read on the recent literature in your field.
  • Take your time: We often get so nervous when asked a question that we don’t fully hear or understand what we are being asked. I am personally guilty of this, and have many times answered a completely different question than the intended one. Take a deep breath, and if you don’t fully understand the question, ask for clarification. Having them reframe or elaborate their thought will help you to provide an on-topic answer by creating time to organize your thoughts. It’s likely you won’t know every answer – don’t hesitate to be honest and tell your audience just that. Explain what you do know about a related topic, and let them know while you appreciate the thought-provoking question, you are unable to answer it at this time.Brittany Uhlorn at the 2019 American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting Poster Session

Tips for poster session attendees

There’s nothing more overwhelming than stepping into a sea of posters – where do you begin?

Design a game plan

Prior to attending the conference, map out which posters you are interested in viewing. For most larger conferences, poster titles and abstracts are available online or in an app prior to the session, so bookmark which posters are of most interest to you a few days in advance. If you don’t have access to a list of posters until the day-of, take a moment to step aside to read through the list at the session so you can strategically use your time. Don’t have access to a list of posters at all? No problem! At the beginning of the session, take a lap around the posters and read the titles to find the ones you’d like to revisit.

Strategically traverse the sea of posters

If you come prepared with a list of posters of interest, then you’ve already set yourself up for success. But sometimes, attendees can get sucked in to thirty-minute-long presentations, which constrains the number of posters you can see. If you are pressed for time, limit yourself to five to ten minutes per poster. Ask the presenter to give the “elevator pitch,” of his/her project – kindly let the presenter know you are very interested in his/her work, and would enjoy hearing the highlights so that you can appreciate the impact of the project as a whole.

In addition to time constraints, there may be particular poster you are interested in viewing which has drawn a large crowd, making it difficult to see the actual poster or interact with the presenter. If you don’t have time to wait for the crowd to disperse, you can either seek out the presenter after the session or find him/her on social media or through their affiliations’ website. Time permitting, you can go back to the most interesting and popular posters at the end of the session.

Get in contact

See a poster you want to know more about? Interested in doing a postdoc in a presenter’s lab? Want to collaborate with a group who presented on a topic related to your research? Find a way to get in contact with the presenter after the session. Exchange business cards or jot down their name and affiliation from the poster heading to get in touch at a later time.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be geared for success at your next poster session! There many other tips and tricks for presenting at scientific conferences, so let us know your own ways to successfully navigate poster sessions with ease.

Download Addgene's science career guide

Many thanks to our guest blogger Brittany L. Uhlorn from the University of Arizona.

Brittany Uhlorn headshotBrittany L. Uhlorn is a fifth year Cancer Biology PhD Candidate at the University of Arizona. She studies the interaction between Human Papillomavirus and the innate immune system, and is interested in a career in science communication.




Resources on the Addgene blog

Resources on the Addgene website

Topics: Science Careers, Conferences, Early Career Researcher

Leave a Comment

Sharing science just got easier... Subscribe to our blog