Visualizing Your Research: My Experience with Poster Sessions
Rebecca White, Ph.D. Candidate
I recently returned from an excellent trip to the 2013 American Historical Association in New Orleans. For the occasion, I tried out a novel (at least for me) new way of presenting my research—the mysterious poster format. This was my first time experimenting with this medium, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how to transform my text-based analysis into a visually-based medium. In other words, to practice turning a research paper into an accessible form of public history. This was much harder than I had anticipated, mainly because a poster truly forces you to think out very clearly exactly what your main points ought to be, whittling away the tangents, and honing in on the point in as few words as possible, while still conveying some sense of depth and nuance. It is really your elevator speech, plus visuals, and that distillation, while at times painful, has been very useful to my entire dissertation process. It so important, I think, to pull oneself out of the weeds of detail, if just for a short while, and think carefully about your wider audience, the place of your work in broader historical terms, and then attempt to make your case for why your research matters. The entire process has been useful to my development as a historian and public speaker.
Key take-away thoughts:
- Use the poster as means to crystallize your thinking and practice communicating to a wider audience. This is an opportunity to have a series of five minute conversations about your work, and to get lots of feedback.
- Big visuals are your friend. I used Excel to easily create visual examples of comparative spending priorities in Maine and New Brunswick. Combined with photos and maps, this added a great deal of visual interest to lure in the public.
- Use your space wisely. I created my poster in Photoshop with large images and graphs and as little text as possible. I then tacked timelines of important events up on both sides. I saw posters that that ranged from museum-quality displays to rather sad, small, text-based ones. No one is going to stand there and read your 12 point font poster. The idea instead is to lure them in with intriguing visuals, and then practice talking about your work, not have them stand and read anything.
- Talk to your co-presenters. I was in a room of 14 other people, many with amazing research displayed on topics as wide-ranging as environmental justice, the Australian Black Panther Party, and Charlie Brown cartoons. We all visited each other, got excellent practice in talking about our work, and compared notes on the entire experience.
- Don’t be afraid of criticism. I had one person strongly criticize one aspect of my research (shown in photo), based on a fundamental disagreement about the nature of 20th century liberalism in Canada (oh historians, we do seem a bit ridiculous to the outside world). Even though I disagreed with him, the exercise of defending my work was extremely useful for the experience and also to clarify my own thinking.
- Present a History Poster! I truly recommend it as one of the best things I’ve done to further my own research and analytical skills. I was forced to conceptualize and present in innovative ways, practiced my public history skills, and chatted with a lot of interesting people. Not bad for two hours on a Saturday afternoon in New Orleans.
Rebecca White,”Visualizing Your Research: My Experience with Poster Sessions” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), January 30, 2013, http://khronikos.com/2013/01/30/visualizing-your-research-my-experience-with-poster-sessions/.