Preparing oral and poster presentations for conferences

As a PhD student, attending conferences is an exciting part of academic life. Conferences are a chance to share your research findings, learn novel ideas or techniques and travel, whether that is locally, further afield or even internationally. A crucial aspect to conference attending is conveying your research to the wider scientific community, through either a poster or oral presentation.

Preparing your research to present at a conference is a balance. You need to include the same details as you would put in a paper or report, but make it concise to fit reasonably in a poster format, or within a specific talk length, such as 10 minutes. When writing a talk or poster for a specific conference, investigating the style and content of previous years abstracts may help to peg yours at a suitable level. Before you start, check the conference guidelines on oral presentation outlines, poster size, and orientation. Although most conferences allow A0 portrait posters, some are different and it’s advisable to check this before writing.

Preparing your poster

Generally, posters follow a bullet point style divided into four main sections:

  • Introduction or Background
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion or Conclusions.

However, there are some other areas of the poster that need attention too.

Firstly, a snappy title is a must. The title must cover the basic outline of the study, yet be intriguing, making the viewer want to read on. The title must be considered during abstract preparation, as whatever you name your abstract will be your poster title. Author names and affiliations sit below the title; the order of this can be important but must be agreed by your research group before poster publication.

The introduction covers the background details of the research involved, using current literature and references. The aims and objectives of the research must be in the introduction, and generally sits well at the end just before the method section to give a sense of flow.

Methods covers obviously what you did to achieve your results. It’s good to be aware of any ethical approval gained for the study, and noting participant numbers, genders and ages, statistical methods used and any chemical in their full unabbreviated names initially, with subsequent references to the ingredients by the standard abbreviations. If the method is tricky to explain, a diagram or photo may help to illustrate, and it is not necessary to repeat the methods in words.

The results section needs to cover all relevant findings. Tables or figures can really help show data, so be imaginative! You’ll need to include statistical p-values to show significances. Finally, the discussion or conclusion section highlights the key findings from your results in punchy language as a ‘take home message’. These need to be clear and concise, covering the exact findings and if possible the relevance of findings to the study and scientific community as a whole.

Oral presentations

For oral presentations the same headings should be followed, with clear simple slides. Keep the number of slides to a minimum to keep the length of the talk on track. A good guideline is around one slide per minute. Set the scene with a clear introduction to the work, indicating the relevance of the study to the general scientific community. Highlight the study aims and objectives, and unlike a poster, you may want to include a hypothesis for further clarity. Diagrams may also help to describe methodology, and helps to keep audience attention as they must listen to you fully to understand the technique.

Results can also be shown on graphs and figures; be careful with tables, as these can appear daunting to the viewer, unless you clearly highlight the numbers or significances of importance to your work. Throughout the results section explain what each experiment or figure means, what is the finding? This will help you lead directly into the conclusions, and you can repeat the key findings already covered in the results, and give a clear take home message to your audience.

And finally...

Whether you’re giving a poster or a talk at a conference, be confident. Who knows your work better than you? This will help you tackle any questions and comments posed, and give you a chance to meet fellow researchers and possible future collaborators. Project your voice, face your audience and above all enjoy yourself!

Dr Caroline Withers