It’s hard to believe, but the end of the fall semester is a good time to start thinking about next summer’s professional conferences. Though June, July and August might seem like ages away, many conferences use January as their deadline for submissions from students. So today is as good a time as any to talk about a type of submission that can seem foreign to a lot of library students- the poster session. Let’s dive in!
What is a poster session?
At conferences, poster sessions are an opportunity for students and/or established professionals to present their work in an informal context. It’s a great way to dip your toe into the conference presentation waters. Unlike a traditional session, all of the posters are set up at once, and each presenter is expected to stand with their poster for the entirety of the session (typically an hour or two) to answer questions from passers-by. The advantage of this format is that it can be a lot less intimidating to be a part of than a panel or paper presentation. Also, at most conferences more posters are accepted than papers, especially from students.
Where do I start?
If you keep an eye on your listservs, or check the website of a particular organization you’re interested in, you will notice a lot of calls for posters. Here are a couple of examples- one from ALA and the other from the Society of American Archivists. The timing might vary- you could have six months or six weeks. But you know how these things go- you’re most likely to find out about the deadline a week or so before it’s due. DON’T WORRY. One of the secrets of conference presenting is that you typically only need an abstract of around 250 words at this stage in the game. So now it’s time to set your idea down on paper.
Where’s this idea going to come from?
You probably have something you’re already thinking about. It might be a paper you really enjoyed writing, or a collection you’re working with, or an outreach program you’re involved in. Or, you might have already done a poster for class. Go with that! It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea, just your take on it. The trick to writing an abstract that will get your poster accepted is to treat it like an advertisement- you want to explain what the topic is, but also convey why you find it exciting and why the reader should too. After you submit your proposal begins the waiting game- this is a good time to flesh out your idea with more research.
I got accepted! Now what?
That’s great! Now’s the time to go back to the conference website and see what the requirements for your poster are. READ THESE CAREFULLY- each conference is different. While many use a standard 36×42 poster, others may have more unique size or material requirements. The posters at ALA need to be 4×8 feet! The website should also tell you what the schedule requirements are- how long you should be there, how much time you’ll have for set-up and tear-down, etc. You’ll also find whether you will have access to power supplies, or tables to A/V equipment, etc. One word of warning- if you do use something electronic, you need to plan ahead for glitches. Be prepared with analog materials if the technology fails.
What sort of formatting should I use for my poster?
Again, this can depend on the conference. A Google search will reveal lots of examples of posters, but I particularly like this site as a source for templates and structure ideas. On the other hand, don’t feel constrained by tradition! As long as you meet the conference requirements and get your points across, the sky is the limit. You want your poster to be both visually appealing and informative. Font sizes are important- you want your information to be visible from a distance of two or three feet. You want to use at least 16 point. Also, keep in mind that people don’t want to read an entire paper off your poster. Keep your text succinct and necessary. Use a hand out or direct visitors to a website if there’s more to the topic than what the poster can hold.
Sometimes your topic can inform your format. The poster I presented at the Society of American Archivists meeting this year was a case study about a comic book collection, so I made it look like a comic book page using ComicLife for Mac. It certainly got attention! If you’re particularly comfortable with Powerpoint or Publisher, those can be put to use. Personally, I’d rather use a product like Photoshop or InDesign. What’s key is to not go too far outside your comfort zone with software- you want to be focusing on the content and design, not wrestling with a totally foreign software package. It’s important that whatever you use can save your poster full size in PDF form, just in case for some reason you need to print it again.
Oh, and printing! Make sure to call around and make sure whatever print shop you’re going to go to can handle the size you need, in the timeframe you need it. More schools are making large-format printers available in spaces like learning commons- this is what I ended up doing because of time constraints. It’s a slightly pricier option, but you have (theoretically) more control over the final product.
What should I prepare for the session?
The day of your session, make sure you eat beforehand and have water nearby (after all, you’re going to be talking for a couple of hours straight in a loud space). Dress professionally, and have business cards handy. A lot of the people who come to see you may be the same ones who interview you after graduation, so you want to make a solid first impression. You’ll also want to have an “elevator speech” of no more than 30 seconds ready. Practice this. You want to briefly summarize your topic, but let the poster and your audience’s curiosity do the rest. And don’t take it personally if someone quickly moves on to the next poster- there’s a lot to take in at a conference. Take some time to walk around and talk with other presenters about their posters. They’re in the same spot you are so show them some support!
As for the more practical aspects of conference attendance, I highly recommend checking out our Hack ALA series– while the tips are ALA-specific, many can be applied to any conference. Also be sure to read Brianna’s excellent post on presenting at conferences.
Now it’s your turn- what else do you want to know about posters? Also, if you’re a Hacker who’s done a poster session, what was your experience? Share in the comments!