I presented a poster with no text - here’s my experience
At some point when I was learning the ropes of academic life I read on Twitter that scientific posters should have as little text as possible.
For some context, I don’t really like posters, overall. I tend to see them as a lot of one-use-only sunk cost. I appreciate the format, but it takes a ridiculous ammount of preparation, compared, to, for example, a talk. I feel, for example, that the graphic aspect of a poster might play more interest in attracting people than the ideas – the quality of the work behind plays a role on the people that approach you, of course, but in general most people quickly dismiss a poorly designed poster, meaning time doing graphic design that doesn’t fall within your normal responsabilities as a researcher. This places an unnecessary burden in early career researchers in already very competitive environments (plus, the price of those things! for one use! you are lucky if your university covers it).
Anyway, that’s another story. Despite my complaints, early in my PhD I spent a lot of time thinking about posters and how to make them efficient. As I see it, the work of a poster is to foster conversation, and I thought, back in 2018, that the less text there is the more time you can spend discussing. I also dislike the idea of just smiling politely while people read your poster - I prefer a short explanation followed by a meaningful chat.
So an idea occured to me. What would happen if I present a poster with no text? Would I get a more interactive experience? Would people focus less on the material support and more on talking about the ideas and work behind?
There were a number of things I expected from a wordless poster before the conference.
- Overall less time writting a sucint version of my work, of course, and more time thinking about what to highlight and which questions are important.
- A forced “elevator pitch” training as a consequence of having to present your idea in a couple sentences. I prepared a short (~1 minute) version and a longer, more detailed description, and planned on asking people which one did they prefer.
- Less people looking at the poster, and overall getting into more natural interactions with scientists that approached.
- You spend the same time working on the poster regardless. In fact, an all-figure poster brings a host of different problems with placing, the pace of figures, and clarity. You have to have a lot of nice figures to present as well, potentially including some ad hoc ones - I spent a lot of time in a tree of human evolution, for example, to accompany a point that could have been covered by a paragraph.
- Most people approached, looked at the poster confusingly and then asked some sort of “what is this about” question. I explained that was a concious decission and went into a short “elevator pitch”. After asking if they wanted more details, a conversation followed - sometimes, as in regular posters. I didn’t get more or less engagment than usual, unlike what I expected, or more quality conversation than with regular posters: I did get some nice compliments about the idea and the overall design, but having no text didn’t help chanelling the conversation around particular features, for example. Some conversations were insightful, but I didn’t feel the poster played any role in that regard.
- A wordless poster also projects the idea that you have nothing to show - something that I don’t think is always fair, though in this particular case it wasn’t too far off. The feedback I received in that conference helped me drop a project that was conceptually nebulous, so my experience might have more to do with the content and experimental framework than with the poster. The conversations that led to that conclussion did flow more naturally compared to a regular poster, maybe because the “elevator pitch” approach is more efficient than reading the whole poster and then ask questions.
- I did notice that most people paid a great deal of attention to the figures, as is natural, but that they were often misrepresented when people wanted to know the details too early - captions and text help interpretation more than I assumed. A better figure design might have helped.
The text in you poster is cumbersome to design and write, fatiguing to read when you have dozens of posters in a hall and will make you stand awkwardly for a wile. But it also helps grounding the kind of conversations you keep and prevent misinterpretation. The quality of the poster plays a role, but it’s easier to design a good poster with text, overall. Also, I’m sorry to say this poster was equally awkward without text – there is no going around that.
Conclusion: I can’t really recommend
… Unless you are a graphics designer, your figures are amazing and crystal clear or people already know what you are going to present in a poster. It was a fun experience, overall, but I think it’s not worth it. Let me know if your experience is different.
I do recommend, nevertheless, hybrid formats, such as posting QRs in you poster leading to a digital copy of it, or to a paper and bibliography. That poster was the first time I did it, and that’s one of the things I’ve kept doing for subsequent posters. Overall, people like to be able to read a poster later, or retrieve a particular data point or reference from it - it saves you time and space in the poster.
Anyway, I still don’t like presenting posters.