Invasions of the U.S. happen on Sundays in December. But this one you can see coming two airports away: people bearing tubes, some simple cardboard, some neon plastic; all heading for the Moscone Center to present posters at the American Geophysical Union annual conference.
Most of this wave of invaders will fail to achieve critical goals because they misunderstand their medium and the nature of their target, just as did the first wave of Sunday invaders in 1941. The Japanese used state-of-the-art airplanes to bomb obsolescent battleships instead of the fuel bunkers and support facilities that allowed a modern fleet to fight. AGU poster presenters largely seem to believe that they are presenting written communication to a patient audience.
But a poster is something you look at, not something you read: remember the definition of a poster is “a large printed picture suitable for decorative display.” A poster is visual, rather than written communication.
And a poster presenter’s target audience is the most impatient a scientific presenter will ever face. We’re way worse than Nature editors or proposal reviewers.
We’re impatient because there isn’t much time in a poster session and there is vast competition for our attention. At AGU, there are there almost 2 miles of posters each day and there’s free beer and friends we haven’t seen since the last meeting. We’re saturated with information and late nights.
I can’t assimilate all the information I see at any conference. I have neither the ability nor the patience to try to soak up all there is on the walls of posters. I must pick and choose which ones I invest my time on. Is this poster going to offer a useful new insight or a new friend or colleague? It takes me between 2 and 15 seconds to evaluate the balance of attraction (interesting topic, visually engaging, etc.) vs. repulsion (complexity, clutter) and decide whether to engage with the poster and the presenter.
I’ve seen a few “perfect posters” in my life. One was so clean that 25 years later, I can still reproduce the model of microbial growth and colonization it developed (thank you, Doug Caldwell). Another I don’t remember as being “perfect” visually, but it presented a data set so intriguing it started a conversation that led to a new collaboration and a manuscript that is now in press (thank you, Xiaofeng Xu). The others I remember were for a single figure, graph or conceptual model. Always, it is the visual elements or the presenter that engages; never the text. And always because the poster focused on a simple clear point that I could absorb quickly and use to launch a conversation with the presenter.
A poster is more like the slides you use to support a talk, than a paper that a reader should be able to work through independently. The visuals are the heart of it, and the text is just the glue to hold them together and to give enough context that someone can get the essential story without the presenter to walk them through it. It isn’t a paper, where you expect to read and contemplate the complex thoughts and arguments.
If I see a poster that is a wall of words, with paragraphs of text, particularly in normal type-sized type, and cluttered with too many data panels I will do one of two things: A) most likely, walk on by, figuring that trying to work through the material just won’t be worth my effort. Or, B) if the topic looks particularly relevant to me, the presenter is someone I know or comes from a group I respect, or perhaps even looks like a student who needs someone to talk to them, I’ll stop and ask “What’s the story?” I’d much rather hear it from the presenter than try to read it with her hovering next to me anyhow. Standing on hard floors makes my knees hurt and a good conversation distracts from the pain. The one thing I will almost never do is read the damned thing. So why put all those words there in the first place?
The key to producing a good poster is the same as for all communication—understand the medium and the audience. In the case of a poster, the medium is visual and the audience is impatient. That leads to several straightforward, but often ignored, rules, rules that are different than for written communication or a patient audience.
1. Your primary goal: Draw people into conversation so you can tell them about your work.
2. Title: Short, catchy—something that will draw a passer-by to talk to you.
3. Story: Simple. It must highlight the critical points: What is the problem? What is your question? What are the key results? What did you learn? Avoid details—we can get them from you or ignore them, and aren’t likely to remember them from reading the poster.
4. Text: Ideally, no text paragraphs. Truly, not one. Bullet lists, single sentences, short notes. Things that you absorb in a glance.
5. Flow: Ideas should emerge as your eyes flow across the poster from left to right and top to bottom.
6. Type size: Big. Nothing under 18 pt. and 24 is better.
7. Tables: Bad—they present information, but not insight. You have to read a table and think about it a lot to figure out what the point is.
8. Figures: Good—they show patterns and trends and so are more powerful for getting across the important insights.
9. Simple cartoons and schematics: Great. They are eye-catching and can communicate complex concepts powerfully.
These are rules, not principles, so you will likely violate some of them, but if you violate too many, people will ignore your poster. There is much more that could be said to illustrate these points, but this is a blog post, not a new book on visual design. David Schultz has a nice, if short, chapter on posters in his excellent “Eloquent Science.” Angelika Hofmann has a longer, chapter in her book “Scientific Writing and Communication,” which is also good.
As long as you construct a poster that reflects that it is visual communication for an impatient audience you will be likely to hit your target and achieve your goal of communicating elements of your work to the target audience.
When I get a grant from the NSF, I have effectively signed a contract to complete a body of research, and that includes publishing the work and making the results and insights available to the public. Essentially NSF expects me to pay them back for their financial support with published papers.
When I recruit a postdoc to work on that project, I have signed a contract with them—I will do what is in my power to support them and to advance their goals: to get a job and develop a career. In exchange, they agree to support me—to do and complete research on the project. By accepting my NSF funding they have taken on a portion of the obligation to pay back with papers.
And here we run into the challenge of non-academic careers. Only one postdoc I have ever worked with who took a non-academic route ever finished the papers they had been working on. This problem exists, but is less extreme, with Ph.D. students who are likely to have finished most of the papers for their dissertation. But a postdoc’s job is to get a job, and jobs come up when jobs come up. Thus, the probability of a postdoc taking a pile of half-processed datasets with them is high, and the probability of their ever finishing the papers is low.
When you start a new job, there is a swarm of new challenges to learn the place, people, and problems you’re working with. In academe, we generally accept that publishing previous work is part of the current job. Finishing Ph.D. and postdoc papers is important to getting a permanent job and advancing. With non-academic jobs, though, managers are unlikely to care about old papers. With little support to finish the papers, and in a new professional environment, it’s no surprise that people find it difficult. No one has ever left with anything but the best of intent, but that is rarely enough.
Thus, trainees who are interested in non-academic careers can be a risky investment for a researcher. They bring many wonderful things to a lab—friendship, creativity, intellectual enrichment, and a mentoring resource for students—but ultimately, you pay them off the grant and they are less likely to pay back the investment by publishing their work.
This leaves me personally and professionally conflicted. It’s my job as mentor to help my people get to the right place for them, and its important to get our people into the public world. We need experienced and talented people in industry, government, and NGO’s and we have an obligation to train people for these careers. But I have needs from the relationship as well—I need the work completed and the papers published.
So what is the solution? I know I can’t convince companies and agencies to wait till a postdoc is done, and I don’t think I can get them to meaningfully support new hires in finishing their previous work. Many students have said we don’t value non-academic careers, and I think that’s not true—we do, but the structures push us toward academic trainees. How do we fix the balance between what we strive to be as academics and what we need to do to survive as academics?
In “Writing Science” I argue that using the first person is a fine thing to do—if you did the work, or you had the thought, what is wrong we saying so?
But as academics, we sometimes use “we” to mean the authors, and we sometimes use “we” to mean the larger community. If you are not careful distinguishing these uses, it can be confusing.
This was brought to my attention when a colleague sent me a copy of “The Weirdest People in the World?” by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. This paper raises the concern that most psychological studies are done on North American university students from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (i.e. WEIRD) societies, who are not always representative of the entire human population. In general this paper is a cleanly and powerfully written piece. The authors write with energy and passion; they open with a powerful “Queen Launch” and resolve with a compelling argument. And, they write actively in the first person—“we did,” “we think,” “we pursued.”
But one paragraph struck me and it raises the question “Who is ‘we’?”
“Our theoretical perspective, which is informed by evolutionary thinking, leads us to suspect that many aspects of people’s psychological repertoire are universal. However, the current empirical foundations for our suspicions are rather weak because the database of comparative studies that include small-scale societies is scant, despite the obvious importance of such societies in understanding both the evolutionary history of our species and the potential impact of diverse environments on our psychology. Here we first discuss the evidence for differences between populations drawn from industrialized and small-scale societies in some seemingly basic psychological domains, and follow this with research indicating universal patterns across this divide.”
In this paragraph, I don’t think that “us” is the authors when they say “our theoretical perspective” and “leads ‘us’ to suspect.” I think it is a more global “us”—psychological researchers as a community. But that isn’t clear; particularly because later in the paragraph they say “Here we first discuss the evidence…” By using the first person reference in two quite different ways within a single paragraph, they create potential confusion.
When you write in the first person, the reader needs to be able to tell who “we” is. That can switch through the text, as readers can often infer from context whether “we” means the authors or some larger community. Clearly, in “Here we first discuss,” we means the authors. But “Our theoretical perspective” might mean the authors or it might mean a larger community—because the authors wrote assertively in the first-person, it makes the usage more confusing.
So, first person is appropriate for describing what you did and what you think, but be careful to avoid mixing the uses of “we.” We need to know who “we” is.
Kevin Lafferty at UCSB has written an excellent article on how to give a good oral presentation. It is probably the best piece I’ve seen on the topic.
NOTE: This had moved. This is the current (Dec. 2013) address for it.
Last words are our strongest. That’s why the punchline comes at the end of the joke and the conclusions at the end of a presentation. The conclusion slide is the “take home message” that we want our audience to soak up. So we should leave that message in front of them for as long as possible. Even while people are asking questions—let them stew on your conclusions.
But it has become common to end with an acknowledgements slide, usually that has a long list of funders, advisors, students who helped in the lab, etc. And since speakers are usually running out of time, they often skim over the list, almost dismissively, which does little to honor the contributors. In any case, to borrow a famous quote “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” What we want to learn from your talk is not your assistants’ names, but your science.
A final acknowledgements slide shuts off the conclusions before we’ve had a chance to assimilate them or to write them down—it undermines the message. That is shooting yourself in the foot, or maybe some part of your anatomy higher up and more vital.
The growth of acknowledgements slides is a Powerpoint effect. In the days of slide projectors, slides cost money so no one bothered with acknowledgements. But since images have become free, the tradition from papers of including acknowledgements percolated into presentations. But in a paper, acknowledgements are a postscript that readers can (and usually do) ignore. In a talk, there is no ignorable postscript—the last slide is part of the talk and should be reserved for your concluding take home message.
I argue therefore that you should generally skip an acknowledgements slide entirely. No one will really miss it. If you need to put agency logos somewhere to recognize funders, they comfortably go on the title slide or in the corners. If it is really essential to include acknowledgements in a presentation, either:
A) Make it the first slide following the title. Tell us who was important to the work before you begin the real story. This avoids disrupting the flow of the presentation and shows that recognizing these people is important to you, rather than being an afterthought. This is key in talks within your own Department (e.g. thesis defense seminars) when the people who helped will be in the audience and may actually care that they are recognized. It is also the most appropriate strategy when we give seminars at other Universities. As professors, our job is to produce both science and scientists; it’s our job to advance our students’ and postdocs’ careers and highlighting them for our colleagues is part of that. So highlight them—mention them first, and then weave their names into the talk as you present the strongest possible science story. For example “My student Jane Doe tested that hypothesis in an experiment that…” That’s a real acknowledgement.
B) Alternatively, show us the acknowledgements and then go back to the conclusions slide; leave that hanging on the screen while people ask questions and you discuss the work further. That gives them time to consider your conclusions and to absorb them.
My first principle of writing is that as an author it is your job to make the reader’s job easy. The same is true as a speaker. Help your audience assimilate your core message; that means giving them time with your conclusions. A second principle is to always think about what you are doing and why—does it advance the message? Or are you just doing it because you’ve seen other people do it and so it seems obligatory?
Don’t roll over your conclusions with an unnecessary and meaningless acknowledgements slide, or even worse, a throw-away “Questions?” slide. Your last slide is your take home message; use it for your most important message: your scientific conclusions.
This column is adapted from my response to an author who was writing a review and inquired whether it would be appropriate for the journal I edit. The paper was about a method that is used increasingly in the field, but there are as many variations as there are labs doing it.
There are many specific variants on this method and authors rarely explain their choice for one over another. The scientific problem develops because we don’t know if the different approaches give different answers or whether there is a coherent approach to fine-tuning for different soil types. The uncertainty creates a problem for researchers—which specific version should they use? How should they adjust for their specific conditions? Also, as with any exciting new method, some people will pick it up and use it ignorantly, and as a result badly.
To make this a powerful paper, you need to offer insight that will help inexperienced users. Just showing readers that there is a minefield in front of them may be useful, but it is more useful to tell them how to find a path through that minefield and most useful to actually show them the path.
Presenting information on the existing variants, where they have been used, and by whom, offers interesting factoids for experts in this area, but not for new users who need help in figuring out how to approach this problem. That information will give us a place to start looking, but then this won’t be the paper we end up using and citing. As a reader (and editor) I don’t want something that is largely an annotated bibliography (i.e. just synopsis). I want something that teaches me something new and useful (i.e. synthesis). In the era of Google Scholar and Web of Knowledge, pure synopsis isn’t as useful as it once was—I can find the papers in a few minutes, instead of the weeks it might once have taken. But I can’t read them any faster, and I’m no smarter.
Your opportunity is to help me identify the critical insights that I should take away from all the papers. You’ve read them and distilled their messages for yourself. Give us the fruits of your intellectual labors. That will make this a review I want to publish.
As reviewers, we sometimes get papers that don’t seem up to the standard of a particular colleague. We wonder how such a poorly written or incompletely thought-out paper could come from such a strong group.
Why do these papers get submitted? Our first assumption is usually that the advisor was skirting their responsibility of ensuring that submitted work is ready. We usually have harsh words in those cases. But we must remember that as Professors, we have two responsibilities: one is to produce science; the second is to produce scientists. The latter may be the more important—our highest responsibility is as mentor and trainer and while single papers easily disappear into the morass, the scientists we train create a living legacy.
I’m sure almost all of us have had to deal with manuscripts where we knew it would be much easier to take the data and just write the paper ourselves, rather than try to coax a student’s work into a polished form. But doing that would undermine them; they need to learn how to write good papers, how to manage the process, and how to gauge when a paper is ready to submit.
In Writing Science, I pointed out that “doing science is inherently an act of both confidence and humility” and that getting the balance between them “is one of the greatest challenges all developing scientists face.” Learning that balance involves both over-shoots and under-shoots. For a student to become a fully fledged professional and peer (as they should), they need to establish ability and confidence, and to develop an independent identity. They need room to grow and to become a peer.
Jay Gulledge, a former student and good friend, told me that one of the most important events in his graduate career came while we were driving up the “Haul Road” from Fairbanks, Alaska to our field site in the arctic tundra at Toolik Lake. We spent hours discussing and arguing his experimental design. Finally I said, “OK, do it your way.” I didn’t relent because I was worn out or trying to make Jay feel good, but because he had finally swayed me with his arguments—and he knew it. He described that moment as more important than passing his qualifying—it was the real acknowledgement that he had become a peer and a colleague, no longer just a student.
But for many students (including me) making that transition from student to colleague can be challenging. Most students go through the phase I call “academic adolescence” where we struggle intellectually and often emotionally with the challenges of becoming a professional, adult scientist. As with real adolescence, this phase sometimes involves a measure of rebelliousness and overreach: “I’m sure this is good enough!”
At that point, it may become impossible for an advisor to push further—you may know that the paper isn’t ready, but the student may be unwilling to make the suggested changes. A good first step to addressing this conflict is to get someone in-house to review the paper—someone experienced that they respect (a postdoc, committee member, or a colleague). But some situations cannot be easily finessed, leaving two imperfect options. Option 1 would be to say “go ahead—submit it, but I won’t be a co-author.” But that is a blow to the student, essentially disowning them and saying you care more about your reputation with reviewers than about your student. That’s harsh.
Option 2 is to say, “I don’t think it’s ready, but if you are so sure, submit it.” Reviewers may be annoyed at you for letting the paper go out, but given a choice between annoying a reviewer and damaging a student, support your student, every time.
Sometimes we need to recognize that the message a student needs is one they can’t hear from us now, but they may be able to hear from someone else. Hopefully, external review would open their mind to being able to hear what you had been saying. Even if it doesn’t though, it changes your relationship with them; where you may have been the “obstacle” in getting this wonderful work published, you are now the ally in helping solve the external problem—how to address the reviews and the editor.
As reviewers and editors, we need to remember and be sensitive to these dynamics as well. It’s possible that someone submitted that poorly written paper without final approval from the professor, although that is becoming more difficult as journals require all authors to approve submission. It’s possible that the advisor was negligent in letting an unready paper go out. But it’s also possible that the advisor was being fully responsible in their role as mentor, but had reached the end of their rope.