Dorky Poll: Talk or Poster?

The Female Science Professor is thinking about conferences:

Some scientific conferences are dominated by talks and some are comprised of talks + poster presentations. At conferences with talks and posters, it varies from conference to conference as to whether talks are more prestigious or whether it doesn't matter very much because there are so many posters, though of course it tends to be the case that talks are preferred. Big professors typically get talks, and students and other unfamous people get posters.

Naturally, this ends up being about the difference between her and one of her male colleagues, but that's not what I want to talk about. She's missed a crucial qualifier in her description of conferences, at least in physics, that makes this open to a Dorky Poll. I'll post the question here, with a little more explanatory context below the fold. The question is:

Which would you prefer to do: a 10-minute contributed talk, or a poster presentation?

Leave your snap judgement in the comments, or click through and read further explanation before deciding.

The context that's missing is this: At most of the physics meetings I go to, there are two classes of talks, in addition to the posters. There are "invited talks," which are half-hour presentations generally given by Big Names in the field (or the students or post-docs of Big Names-- I have several invited talks to my credit for this reason), but there are also "contributed talks" which are vastly more numerous, and limited to only about ten minutes.

Everybody agrees that invited talks are vastly more prestigious and useful than contributed talks. There's still a slight prestige advantage for a contributed talk over a poster, but which is more useful is the subject of much debate.

Ten minutes is not nearly enough time to give a good in-context description of a significant research accomplishment. In a ten-minute talk, you can just about get the main points across to an audience who already knows basically what you're talking about, and is just looking for whatever new wrinkle your work provides. It's pretty much the movie-trailer version of a research presentation, though: just enough of a taste of the work in question to hopefully get people interested in seeing the whole thing.

A poster, on the other hand, is usually part of a poster session that runs for an hour or two. In a poster session, people who are interested in a given topic an seek out the poster presenter, and discuss it in full detail. People doing posters usually have a ten-minute spiel that they can run through for the casual viewer, or people passing by who just happened to make eye contact, but the real advantage of a poster presentation is that people with a deep interest in the work can stop by the poster, and discuss it at length and get into all the gory details that don't fit in a ten-minute talk.

From the audience side, posters are clearly preferable to ten-minute talks. The amount of information transferred is potentially much greater, and as a bonus, there are often snacks and beer at poster sessions.

From the presenter side, though, it's much less clear. Both have their pros and cons. A poster presentation offers the chance for more meaningful discussion, but it generally entails two hours of standing in an crowded, overheated room with little chance to enjoy the snacks and beer. And if nobody is interested in the topic of your poster, it can be lonely and pathetic.

A ten-minute talk, on the other hand, offers almost no chance for information transfer, but at least it's over quickly. It does involve public speaking, though, which many people regard as a fate worse than death.

So, if you had the choice, which would you pick? Ten-minute talk, or poster presentation?

(Please note, I'm still out of town. If your comment gets held for moderation, it may be a while before I get a chance to approve it. Similarly, if you post something that requires a response from me, it may be some time before it arrives.)


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I R not a Physicist, but I'd pick the talk, because I *am* an introvert. Giving a talk gives you control and little unscripted interaction. A poster is all about the unscripted interaction that can be really hard on and for an introvert.

Also. This is bothering me.
Naturally, this ends up being about the difference between her and one of her male colleagues

It feels dissmissive to me. When you're a FSP like she is, most everything does come down to that and not from your choice, you know.


A poster is almost always preferably to a ten minute talk.
A 15+ min talk is better than a poster.
You could make a case that a 5 min talk is ok - you just state your name, one slide on what the project is, one slide on the results, maybe one conclusion/future prospects.
Ten minutes is the most awkward time, and unless you're trying to promote your existence to a job market, talks of that length are mostly useless.

Newton did adequately well with three variables and a constant, three multiplications and a division. The whole of General Relativity is ten short equations. Maxwell's equations barely decorate a t-shirt.

If you cannot explain your work with a cocktail napkin, a swizzle stick, and ten minutes you are incompetent. Content is short, instructions are long. (Fit a 360K floppy to a cocktail napkin.)

Women as a class are particularly deficient at spitting it out. Nancy Pelosi and her 100 Days; Hitlery Ramrod Clinton spending $100 million to Save Our Children! from the National Healthcare Crisis! during her husband's tenure. Maggie Thatcher was a wonder of accomplishment - but she started as a chemist.

I don't have any particular fear of getting up and talking, so that's not a factor. It depends on whether it's an N+1 paper (i.e. what we've done since last year's conference) or if we have some real results⢠to present. For the former, a poster, and for the latter, a talk.

It's not all about the information transfer -- part of it is being seen and associated with a certain type of research, especially if you aren't a big name. Since posters can be more easily overlooked, a talk is more effective at that; you can always corner the speaker (or be cornered) at some other point for more complete coverage of the details. And that can involve beer.

I greatly prefer 10-minute talks, both in the giving and receiving. Partly it's that I'm better at presenting information in talk format, but it's mostly because I'm an introvert and detest casual conversation with strangers.

Also, skeevy dudes who've drunk too much beer don't hit on you during 10-minute talks. (I'm sure that as 1) a man and 2) a *big* man, this is not a situation you've had to deal with. But some of us are not so fortunate.)

Poster as at my particular conference you are more likely to get feedback with a poster than with a talk. Food scientists seem to hate asking questions in public, probably scared of giving proprietary information away.

I used to prefer posters because of being an introvert. I still prefer them because you get more feedback and get to meet more people who are interested in your project. On the downside, I seem to spend more computer time preparing a poster than a 10-15 minute talk.

As an introvert, I used to prefer posters, but I now much prefer talks. However, I've never had a shorter than 20 minute time slot (although that 20 minutes includes questions and transition between speakers, so it's more like 15-17 minutes of the actual presentation).

I prefer a 20-minute talk to a poster, but I think I'd prefer a poster to a 10-minute talk.

I've found that the relative quality of posters and presentations vary wildly from conference to conference.

The worst presentations I've given have been at the APS, when there are something like 20 talks occuring concurrently, and the audiences are always small. The best are those at small conferences where there is only one talk at a time, and you get everyone paying attention.

I like posters, but only if the poster session is run well. At most conferences, the poster session is the chance to skip out and do some sight-seeing. I've spent two hours next to a poster and not had a single visitor, and I certainly wasn't alone. The best poster session I've been to was at a Gordon conference, where all poster presenters were invited to give a 5 minute 'talk' to advertise their work, and the poster session itself was small (about 20 posters) and accompanied by free beer.

I find that with posters you're more likely to get reliable, in depth feedback from people in the same field, but with presentations you're more likely to get feedback from way out in left field, which can be good or bad.

snap judgement without reading your post or the comments:
poster for work in progress on which you want feedback. talk for visibility of polished work.

I don't find talks to be useless at all. With good planning, I am able to see dozens of 10-minute talks that I actually enjoy at each APS meeting I attend, and I find that if I hang around after my talk or its session are finished there are often people who wish to discuss it with me.

However, the poster is clearly the superior medium - if people in your field are actually at the poster session (likely at a Gordon Conference, less likely at APS) and if the physical and logistical unpleasantness is not overwhelming. In my experience, poster sessions at APS deteriorate rapidly (in attendance and creature comforts) over the course of the conference.

I think the best plan is to give both a talk and a poster, or to have a cluster of talks and posters associated with the research group, and advertise the poster at the end of the talk.

I like giving talks, but if you're prone to making stupid statements or not fielding questions well, posters are better. Fewer witnesses.

It boggles my mind that the talk v. poster thing can turn into a gender argument, but anyhow.

If the material being presented is something you don't think people will know they should be interested in (and thus go out of their way to look at the poster), then a 10 minute "advertisment" talk can be more beneficial ... you're guaranteed an audience (and then it's up to you to keep them engaged, of course).

I attended my first conference two years ago (I'm a grad student). Here's what I experienced:

I was a timekeeper for a talk session. Talks were 12 minutes long, leaving 3 minutes for questions. It worked reasonably well, but the audience did need some background knowledge to know what was going on. On the other hand, it was an easy way to get caught up on what other researchers in that specific area of interest were doing. Most were quite willing to e-mail copies of particularly interesting powerpoint slides to requesters after the conference.

I was also part of a team that presented a poster, and that was less than satisfying. The poster was describing some work in progress, and we knew there were people who wanted to talk to us about it. But they mostly skipped the poster session altogether, and so we were left making chitchat for the entire two hours. And while I love the challenge of making a good poster, the up-until-dawn, arguing-with-Illustrator aspect was less than pleasant.

Based on that experience, I'd much prefer to talk rather than show a poster.

I prefer 10-minute talks, which makes me a male chauvinist, I guess. And a jerk too.

By Male chauvinist (not verified) on 05 Mar 2008 #permalink

Talks, no question. Maybe it's the type of conference I go to - I avoid the bigs like MRS and SPIE - but I'm more likely to get someone coming up to speak to me after a talk than I am to stop at a poster for the equivalent 10 minute spiel.

And for Karen - arguing with illustrator? I've always done my posters in Powerpoint, which is dead simple. (Now the folks whose "poster" is just printed out slides for a talk, they should be shot. But you can make a good, one-sheet poster in the software.)

1. Talks require much less physical preparation time, so are preferable from a time budget POV.

2. Every (geology) conference that I've been to has equal time slots, with invited and contributed talks mixed up so that you don't know which is which unless you look at the program.

In practice, though, you can generally distinguish the invited talk by their less interesting content, as invited speakers tend to coast, while surmounting the poster cutoff barrier generally means that the contributed talks have an interesting and cutting edge result.

3. Personally, I would much rather talk than write.

Poster, no contest. I get to talk with people, not to them. The people I get to talk to are genuinely interested (unlike the talk audience, most of whom are doing their email, preparing their own presentation or happily asleep). And I can get real, immediate feedback and learn something.

I kind of like the poster. Both the 10-minute contributed talk and poster require about the same amount of work, but the poster is a much more relaxed atmosphere and question-and-answer style, which tailors the talk much more to what the individual (or very small group) needs.

And I agree too--there is food, drink, and beer served at poster sessions but not at talks. This is a problem which should be rectified at the next March Meeting! After all, I'd wager the question part of the talks would be much livelier after everyone's had a few.... ;)

Personally, it seems to me that all of the actual physics gets done in a bar or restaurant after the talks get the juices flowing. Or in a hot tub. But I'm a (n almost finished) grad student, so it may yet be naiivite.

See you all in Nawlins.

I will always take the invited talk if offered, but otherwise it depends on the conference.

At an AGU meeting, posters are often better since, as many people have pointed out upthread, you actually get to have discussions with interested people about key points of the work. On the rare occasions when any interesting exchanges happen in the Q&A portion of a talk, the session chair invariably interrupts with a plea to take the discussion "off line" because there is a schedule to be kept.

However, if I'm going to a meeting where the poster session is essentially an afterthought (COSPAR is the worst but by no means the only offender in my field), I definitely want a talk, because at least my talk will be seen.

As for the Illustrator vs. PowerPoint debate between Karen and Craig, I also side with Illustrator. This is largely because I have to take many of my figures into Illustrator anyway to clean them up (even when I am preparing a PowerPoint talk). Another factor is that I don't have PowerPoint on my laptop (I have Keynote instead, and I have never had occasion to find out whether Keynote can do posters).

I would also like to remind Craig that there is an excellent reason for preparing a poster as slides: If you are traveling to the meeting by air, you are guaranteed to be able to carry your presentation in hand baggage. If you do a large format single sheet poster, you have to put it in one of those tubes, and depending on where you're going and the passenger load you might be forced to check the poster tube. (European airlines are generally much stricter than American airlines when it comes to hand baggage.) I have seen at least one case where the authors who intended to show a poster could not do so because they had to check the poster tube and it was delayed in transit.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Mar 2008 #permalink

As an aside from the issue of giving talks/posters, I much prefer listening to a talk than visiting a poster.

In the audience for a presentation, I can listen to everything the presenter has to say, on equal footing with everyone else in the audience. All too often at a poster session I've seen a poster I'm interested in, only to find the presenter in a deep conversation with several other experts in the field. As a graduate student, I'm often ignored, and end up wandering off to another poster in hopes of finding something more inviting.

PowerPoint? Illustrator? Inkscape + OpenOffice and/or Scribus FTW! ;)

Talks (I also attend ACS meetings where the skew between Big Name and contributed is much greater, only Big Names give Big Name talks, no lowly postdocs/grad students there). I guess posters may get more people to look, but talks are easier (more impersonal and one is done in 15-20 mins) and interested people can always talk to the speaker (me ) afterwards.