Machiavelli’s guide to conference poster design

Principle 1: Deliver the goods.

Every visitor to your poster wants something: figure out what it is and give it to them.

What might a visitor want?

  1. To know about the problem. They’ve heard this area is really blowing up and your poster looked like good work in the area, or they know or have heard of one of the authors, or your poster was aesthetically appealing, or was just the first one they saw on this problem. It’s your opportunity to bring an outsider into the area, and success will bring you gratitude and esteem.
  2. To know about your scientific results. Competitors both friendly and adversarial want to know what you’ve been up to; people in related fields want to know if what you’ve found impacts their own work, hoping to get an edge on their competitors; curious smart people may think your work is an important step forward and want to hear your thoughts on the broader context and implications of your research.
  3. To know about the methods you’re using.  This is especially common in my kind of theoretical/computational work, where things often transfer between domains. Perhaps some feature of your approach lets you do things that the visitor can’t: usually, he or she hasn’t ever admitted that inability publicly, and won’t tell you either.
  4. To know about you the scientist/engineer (or your advisor, or the team… but most likely just you). Would you be a good colleague, whether at a national lab, a university, or a company? Everyone wants to work with the best people; even if the visitor isn’t someone who would hire someone in your area, she may well _know_ somebody who would. True story: I once went to an interview where the very first person I met sat me down and said, “I don’t know what you said to that woman you sat next to on the flight over, but she’s convinced you’re God’s gift to [my institution]!” Even if the visitor isn’t hiring or trying to put your name into the mix elsewhere, it’s a small world, and it’s always better to have more people believe,  “That person really knows how to think about tough problems.”

Notice that this is a slightly skewed, more personalized version of “Know your audience.” One of the most critical aspects of a successful poster presenter/reader interactions is how efficiently and accurately the giver calibrates what the reader is after, and there are few approaches more effective than simply asking the reader about her background and interest in the poster. This tells the reader that the giver is serious about the job of giving a poster, and therefore empowers her to say things like, “OK, I don’t care so much about that part of the work…” if the discussion veers. Furthermore, it reminds the presenter that this can be a two-way interaction: it’s perfectly acceptable to communicate the important stuff more efficiently: “Are you familiar with [esoteric numerical simulation technique]? If so, I’ll just skip ahead to what you really care about, [implementation on GPUs].”

Note that the list includes “your results” before “your methods.” (Of course, for many CSGF-affiliated scientists, the “results” themselves are sometimes called “methods,” but there should be no confusion if you call such results “algorithms” and leave the word “methods” to refer to the means by which you obtain your results.)

Principle 2: It’s a quid pro quo.

Every visitor to your poster expects to have to accept something _else_ in addition to what they really want. Drive a hard bargain—give them what they want, but work to make sure they walk away with your message as well.

What can you leave a visitor with? Basically, the possibilities fall into the same categories:

  1. You’re working on a good problem, where “good” can mean interesting, important, challenging, relevant to the visitor’s own research.
  2. Your results are surprising/important/relevant to the visitor.
  3. Your methods are sound/impressive/relevant. Perhaps the visitor is skeptical about your working hypothesis, and the best you can hope for is diminishing their skepticism.  After all, in the 5-15 minutes of most poster conversations, you’re not going to change someone’s mind about much of substance.  Kudos to the presenter who can recognize her visitor’s skepticism, respect it, and communicate her efforts without trying to force a conversion.
  4. You’re really smart and they should keep track of what you’re up to.

This is clearly the second level of the calibration problem—that is, beyond identifying what the visitor would like from your poster.

Principle 3: Efficiency is a win-win situation.

The poster advice “keep it simple” (with or without a half-hearted ad hominem attached at the end) is about efficiency.  Especially in conference posters, being a responsive presenter is critical!

If you’re spending time talking about things that your visitor doesn’t really care about, you are wasting your opportunity to make an impact on him or her in other ways. A visitor will allow you a certain freedom to get to what they want to know, but you have to get there quickly. The freedom–the leeway–that the visitor gives you is your only chance to get your own message across.  If you fritter away that leeway on secondary or tertiary issues, you’re wasting your time.

If the visitor gives up and tunes out before you’ve delivered the goods they wanted, they probably won’t take away what you might want them to–and what they might have, if you had delivered on your side of the transaction.