A poster presentation is a dance. A dance in which you start off by yourself, scanning the crowd for a nice partner to dance with. Then, you have to attract that partner and invite them to join your dance. This means your dance will have to follow some conventions, though the sparks will really fly if you can give your own spin to it.

During your poster pitch, it’s all about keeping the attention of your visitor.

During the dance, it’s all about maintaining the attention and motivation of your partner to pay attention and follow. That is, until you get what you want and then you let them go with a flourish. The poster itself is your advertisement, and your pitch or behavior next to the poster is what draws them into your dance.

A good pitch relies on a poster with a clear goal

We’ll start by giving you a few points to keep in mind when designing your poster-pitch combination. Below, we’ll look at different pitches for different scenarios.

Make sure your goal with this poster presentation reflects the possibilities of your audience

Poster sessions can be very diverse. Sometimes your audience is researchers who are very close to you in your field, but sometimes a conference is much broader. Occasionally, you may be dealing with professionals or patients, who have a very different background. What you can get out of these audiences is different, so think about that in relation to your goal: what can this audience gain you? But also think about their side: what do they want, how can you appeal to them?

What does your audience want and how can you appeal to them?

Make sure your poster reflects your goal

Is your goal to make connections and network? Or is your goal to get input on a difficult question you’re struggling with? Or something else? Whatever it is, make sure you have thought about it. A poster presentation is never just sending information; but an interaction with your audience. So think about what you want to get out of that and design your poster accordingly.

To get another perspective on this, consider your own reasons for visiting poster sessions. Your goal can also be influenced by the goals of your group leader, your institution, or the conference itself. So consider them and incorporate these goals when necessary.

Think about what you want to get out of the poster presentation.

A poster is the start of a conversation

The best way to convey information is through a conversation. This goes both ways: for the visitor it helps if you can explain your work in a way that appeals to that person, and for you a conversation is the best way to fulfill the goal of your poster presentation. So use your poster as a conversation starter. To do that, first of all, limit the amount of text, so that you can move on to that conversation as soon as possible. Don’t put tables or complicated graphics on it if you don’t have to. Instead, opt for statements and questions that your audience can react to. Depending on your goal, you could even save some room for post-it notes or comments from your conversation partners.

Poster presentations and pitches are meant to connect with your visitors.

Your ‘pitch’ is not a fixed story but a range of scenarios

While it’s good to think of what you’re going to say when you’re standing next to your poster, don’t think of that too rigidly. A pitch is strictly speaking the same every time, while your audience is a different person every time. Think about that dance, and say the things that that person will find interesting and engaging! This means it’s good to have a few things ready to say, so you can apply the best option to that person. Prepare a few questions based on your methods, for example, or have a few anecdotes ready that complement your data. Or ask how your work relates to their research.

What will your audience find most interesting about your research?

Everyone likes to talk about themselves, and after you’ve hooked your audience this way, it’s easier to then turn the conversation back to your own topic (and goal!). Disclaimer: your personality will indicate how much preparation is best for you. If you’re a great improvisor, then you maybe don’t need to prepare anything in advance. If the idea of starting a conversation makes you nervous, preparing a few questions or scenarios will help you get over those cold feet. More on this below.

What should be on your poster, and what in your pitch?

This is not a hard requirement, but a rule of thumb is: the closer it is to your research, the more likely it is that you should put it on your poster. This concerns data, methods, conclusions and immediate recommendations. The more it moves away from your research, the more suitable it is for your pitch. And that goes both ways. If you work on a disease, then upstream from your research are patients with stories that you can use to introduce the relevance of your research.

Downstream, your research may lead to recommendations for politicians or patients, which is also further away from your research. It’s further away because these recommendations will most likely be mixed with other sources, and don’t rely on your research alone. This means they are not immediately interesting for everyone and are best kept for the conversation if the occasion arises.

In short:

On your poster

Information, competence, anything close to the science.

In your pitch

Connection, personal motivations, anything further from science.

Creating an engaging pitch

Having said all this, how do you move on to your pitch? (If you haven’t made your poster yet, now is the time to read this blog on poster design first…)

First off, let’s distinguish two different settings for your poster presentation.

  1. You’re pitching your poster at a conference during a special poster session, with your poster on screen and a group of people listening. Generally, this session covers around 10 posters, and you have a few minutes to pitch. This setting also applies to poster tours, during which a group of people moves from poster to poster.
  2. You’re standing next to your poster in the actual poster exhibition, trying to and actually having one on one conversations with passers-by.

Setting 1: pitching to an audience

In this setting, you’ll have to do the work and convince your audience to come talk to you later, as you get no feedback from your audience right away. You can also look at it more positively. This setting allows you to control a lot; you already have an audience, and they can’t easily leave.

Convince your audience to come and talk to you.

This setting comes closest to what we think a pitch is; it’s a story you can prepare largely beforehand, and you already know how long it will be, etc. It also means that your audience expects a smoother ride with this pitch. Therefore, you have to start by grabbing their attention right away. You can do this, for instance by starting with a shocking fact or anecdote that really illustrates the importance of the problem you’re working on. However you do it, make sure that the story you tell makes your audience curious about your work. It’s not about reading out loud what’s on your poster. The poster will give the science, you are giving the context of the science. If you want to practice this kind of pitch, our workshop Basics of Science Communication is a great start.

Setting 2: standing next to your poster

In this setting, you can’t get away with your standard pitch. Why not? Because rattling off a prepared pitch in what is, in essence, a conversation is weird. The beauty of a dialogue is that it’s two-way traffic; it allows you to customize your point to that one specific person. So do this!

During a conversation, your partner will give you constant feedback about what they think and feel. That can be both verbal and non-verbal. Non-verbal cues can be posture, restlessness, or eye contact. If your partner is constantly looking away they might be scouting for reasons to leave, whereas strong and frequent eye-contact is a sign of interest. So if you sense that you’re losing them, it’s time to re-engage or reconnect with them.

Verbal cues can help you more directly. Your partner will ask questions about certain things or reply vocally to things you say, and indicate which direction they want the conversation to go. You can use that to keep the conversation going. However, it’s good to keep an eye on your own goals as well.

Think in scenarios

The thing is, while every conversation is technically unique, there are definitely similarities between people. For example, you can bet that there will be multiple junior researchers present who have a desire to network.

So while preparing a rigid pitch is too much, you don’t have to leave it all open either. Think about these scenarios: who is likely to visit my poster, and where will their interest be? Or even: who would I like to visit my poster?

Find a handful of the most likely scenarios and prepare talking points for them. Not as rigid as a pitch, but use anecdotes, statistics, questions, and proposals to fill this conversation. Ideally, this keeps your partner engaged while also helping you achieve the goal of your poster presentation.

Ending the conversation

When the conversation draws to a natural ending, don’t fight it. If you get what you want, or the promise that you will get it later (through email contact for example) it’s okay to let it go. If not, you can make the next step explicit and agree on something before you part ways.

Forcing yourself to keep a conversation going will make it awkward and ruin the good feeling both of you probably have. You don’t want to leave the impression that you are keeping people from visiting other posters they may want to see.

About the Author: Stephan van Duin

Stephan enjoys the process of understanding complex matters and being able to present them in a comprehensible way. His vision is that science and society can benefit from clear science communication, and that technology can aid this development in various ways, from science websites for the public to academic e-learning for students.

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