Academic Poll: Talk or Poster?

The Steinmetz Symposium is today at Union, as mentioned in yesterday's silly poll about fears (I love the fact that "Wavefunction Collapse" leads "Monsters from the Id" by one vote at the time of this writing-- my readers are awesome). As a more serious follow-up, there were two presentation options offered to the students, and this year's physics majors overwhelmingly chose one over the other. I'm curious as to how many people would make the same choice, so here's a poll:

If you're not in a field that offers both of these options, I'll put a breif description of the pros and cons below the fold.


A 15-minute talk is, well, a 15-minute block in which you explain what you did for your research project. You generally get to use whatever presentation technology you like best-- chalkboard, PowerPoint, etc., but you're limited to 15 minutes with five minutes after the talk for questions from the audience. At Steinmetz, these are typically in sessions of 5-ish talks per session.

PRO: During the time you're talking, you are the only one presenting, and thus command the full attention of the audience (potentially, anyway). The whole thing is over in 15 minutes.

CON: Depending on the project, it can be very difficult to condense months of work into a single 15-minute presentation. The tight time limits don't allow much detailed discussion, either in the talk itself or in response to questions. And, of course, it involves public speaking.


For a poster presentation, you are given a section of a display area-- typically something like three feet by four feet-- on which to hang a poster describing your research. While you are not formally required to be present, it is generally expected that you will hang around during the poster session to answer questions that people have about the poster. These are generally done in large rooms with 20-plus other people presenting their own posters at the same time.

PRO: Does not involve public speaking in the stand-in-front-of-a-crowd-and-talk form. The longer time period allows for more in-depth discussion with people who stop by to ask questions.

CON: You're on call for an hour and a half, which can be exhausting. You're one of 20-30 people presenting en masse, and it can be hard to draw attention to your work and the coolness thereof.

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I'm not seeing the poll. Is this just me?

Another advantage to a talk is that once you give, everyone knows who you are. If this is a meeting longer than a day, you will have people talking to you throughout the remainder of the meeting for the more in depth discussions. Posters...not so much.

Okay, it works now.

It really depends on the venue. If this is a large conference, with lots of concurrent sections of talks, I like the poster because there will always be a bigger name speaking when you speak, and I always end up with, at most, a dozen people listening to my talk. A poster can bring by scores of people with whom you can have good discussions.

At a smaller conference or meeting, I'd prefer to do a talk for reasons like Lorax said above. At these meetings I tend to see as many people at the talks as would stop by a poster, and there's more time for discussions over lunch or dinner.

I've been doing research for a decade and a half by now, and I have little fear of public speaking anymore. But I prefer poster sessions by far.

Think about when you go to a conference. During the talks - 15 minutes or 45 - you tend to get distracted, nod off, misunderstand the whole thing or wonder why on earth the presenter isn't saying a word about what you think is the main point. And that's the talks you're really interested in. All other talks soon turn in to a good time to catch up with your departmental email.

A poster, on the other hand, you go to because you're interested in the work. And as you talk with the presenter you can steer the discussion towards the precise areas that you're interested in. You can exchange papers and other background info, and you can talk with the presenter about anything about your work related to theirs. With any luck you'll both be able to learn a lot of new stuff not covered by the talk.

Ugh, I hated poster sessions, back when I was living la vida academica. Whenever I had the option I did the talk.

One thing missing from your pro/con list: Giving a formal talk provides infinitely less opportunity for sleazy guys to hit on you in an environment where you can't get rid of them by walking away. Granted, this is probably not a problem you have experienced personally.

Depends on the conference. At the American Geophysical Union meeting, posters are better because you can actually get something out of discussions with people. Also, beer is available at the afternoon poster sessions. However, if you are going to a smaller conference where there is only one oral session taking place at any given time, you definitely want to have a talk because you know that (almost) all of your potential audience will hear it. Some major conferences (IAGA and COSPAR, among the ones I have attended) are notorious for skimping on the poster setup, and if you are going to one of those you definitely want a talk.

Biggest upside to a talk: You can keep working on it even after you get on the plane, up until the day before if not the day of the talk; your poster has to be ready before you get on the plane. Biggest downside to a talk: You can keep working on it while you are at the conference, so it's tempting to work on the talk instead of listening to other talks or posters.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 May 2010 #permalink

And to add to Eric's comment, at the American Geophysical Union (and now at the Geological Society of America), the free beer can pull the audience away from talks and to the poster session.

I've given several talks now, but only presented one poster, and I won't do that again, for the exact opposite of the reasons given in comment 3. At the conferences I attend, giving a talk means having 30 people in the room if I'm unlucky. That number includes people who don't even know my topic but find it not quite as boring as the other talks that are given at the same time (if any). Those who are interested will talk to me (during lunch breaks and the like) for the rest of the conference. A poster means only the 5 people who already know me will even see it, and that in a horribly overcrowded setting; it also means that I won't see any posters that are shown at the same time, and that I'll miss talks because I have to put the poster up.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 07 May 2010 #permalink

Forgot to mention that "public speaking" doesn't even enter the question for me. Giving a talk is completely unlike performing on stage; you don't recite something the audience already knows, you explain something to the audience that they and you find interesting and that they don't already know. They don't even need to see you (it's dark, and occasionally I've even ducked behind the podium so as to be out of the line of sight between the audience and the screen and didn't get any negative comments afterwards; the microphone and the laser pointer worked nicely).

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 07 May 2010 #permalink

I gave my first research talk when still an undergraduate. As befit my lowly status, I was given an extra-short slot: thirty minutes. A normal slot would be one hour, and PhD students usually get 40 to 45 minutes.
I'm a scientist, but not a physicist.

I voted talk, and that's generally what I prefer now, but when I was a student at Union, I'm sure I would have taken the poster option if I could have.

As a student: definitely poster. Either the posters are hung in the hallways of the lab floor afterwards, and you get to be epicly cool and inspiring for the generations to follow, or you can take them back to dorm and scare and confuse your humanities roommate and their friends. Either way is win for months after the event.

I've given lots of presentations, and enjoy doing them. There is the problem of concurrent presentation sessions. However, in a sense, all the other posters represent concurrent sessions as well. I've never done a poster. I made an educational display once for a cactus show and that was a lot of work. You just don't want to be the last presenter in the last session of the meeting. I've gone to a couple of those just so a friend would have an audience.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 07 May 2010 #permalink

Talk - most definitely. With a poster you are never going to be able to reach all the people that might want to hear your work. The most important part of conference is sharing work with others and getting that feedback and geek-juices flowing. A talk reaches a wider audience, breaks the ice if you are alone and is way less awkward then standing there hoping someone comes to talk to you.

I always find poster sessions feel like a junior high dance.

I haven't seen a post saying what the students chose, so I predict that they went with the poster session even though I would take the talk any day.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink