As graduate students, we spend tireless hours collecting data, gaining knowledge about our field, and learning new laboratory techniques (often into the wee hours of the morning). Conferences provide us an opportunity to finally showcase our hard work. Presenting your research at conferences is one of the best opportunities to tell your story as a graduate student.
This spring I presented a poster at the Rocky Mountain ACSM Regional Chapter meeting and was ultimately named the 2022 ACSM President’s Cup winner at the national annual meeting. However, long before I presented my poster at the Regional Chapter, I went through several iterations of red-inked proofreads. I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. If you are planning to present a poster at an ACSM regional chapter meeting, consider these tips to increase the effectiveness of your presentation.
Read every part of your poster out loud (even the references).
Making errors when creating a poster is inevitable, but reading your poster out loud helps you catch these errors. Remember, your research should tell a story. As you read your poster out loud, listen and make sure your poster is clear and easy to follow from start to end.
Use fellow students as resources.
Research is rarely completed alone, and therefore you should not complete your poster alone. Rely on your fellow students to proofread. Often other people can catch errors that you might miss, especially if you created the poster while sleep deprived (we have all been there!).
Create a visually appealing poster.
It is important to create a poster that stands out among the competition. Breaking up the text on your poster with scientific images is a key way to make your poster stand out. Consider supplementing your introduction section with an image demonstrating your aims and hypotheses or consider implementing a protocol schematic into your methods section. An excellent resource is BioRender. It is free and has thousands of relevant life-science icons.
Set aside extra time to print your poster.
Often when you print your poster, you will catch formatting errors or blurry images that you did not see on your computer screen. It is immensely helpful to have extra time to fix and re-print your poster when any of these issues arise. It is worth the time to fix these issues before you leave for your conference.
Be familiar with the judging rubric.
Seek out the judging rubric specific to the conference. For the ACSM regional chapter, the judging rubric equally weighs significance, innovation, project design, ability to respond to questions and poster design/presentation skills. It is important that you spend time working on each part. It is tempting to focus solely on the visual aspect of the rubric, but the oral aspect of the rubric is equally important.
Craft a compelling elevator pitch.
An elevator pitch is a quick (~30 second) synopsis of your research story that appeals to your audience. Once you get the attention of your audience, you can go into detail about your experimental design and relevant results. When you are at the conference, there will come a point in time where the judge will approach your poster and ask you to explain your project. If done well, this is a moment where you can shine.
TIP: Implement the “ABT” formula (ABT=And, But, Therefore) to nail your elevator pitch. The “ABT” formula is a universal story structure which is highly successful in scientific communication. Use the word “and” to set up the scientific story by establishing a few facts. Next, use the word “but” to establish the problem or a gap in knowledge. Finally, use the word “therefore” to suggest the solution that your research attempts to address; you can think of this as your purpose statement.
Field questions from people with a variety of backgrounds.
The judges assigned to your poster will likely have diverse scientific backgrounds. Therefore, when preparing for your poster presentation, practice fielding questions from people with a variety of backgrounds. Present your poster to your mom, your classmates, your professors–heck, you could even present your poster to your crazy neighbor. Consider how someone from an industry perspective might perceive your research compared to someone from a molecular science perspective. Not only will this prepare you for any question you may receive, but it will also allow you to consider your research from a broader viewpoint.
Make sure your poster adheres to the ACSM Regional Chapter guidelines.
Every conference has slightly different poster guidelines. Make sure you follow the guidelines closely. Be familiar with specific poster requirements like the size requirements, inclusion/exclusion of an abstract and recommended sections headers. This is a small, but crucial, way to demonstrate your attention to detail.
Ultimately, presenting your research at conferences is a fun opportunity to showcase your work and knowledge. When done well, a poster presentation can help you build a reputation as a highly rigorous scientist with impeccable research skills and attention to detail. Good luck as you prepare for ACSM regional chapter meetings!
Watch Sophie's Winning presentation: "One Week of Time-Restricted Eating Improves Markers of Cardiometabolic Health in Healthy Adults."
Sophie Seward, MS, is a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University in the Sleep and Metabolism Laboratory. She is specifically interested in the impact of lifestyle interventions to improve cardiovascular health such as exercise, diet, heat therapy and sleep in people at risk for cardiovascular impairments. She is the winner of the 2022 Presidents Cup at the ACSM Annual Meeting, representing the Rocky Mountain chapter.