How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed presenting at a conference?

Keely B.: Poster presentations before the pandemic typically were given hour-long time slots, in a large banquet hall sized room with many other presenters, with other conference attendees walking around and periodically stopping by to read your poster, listen to a short summary of the research, then ask questions. Online conferences have made this look very different to say the least. This year, a ‘Poster’ presentation at the Society of Behavioral Medicine Annual Meeting (SBM) was actually a short PowerPoint presentation that could be 2 minutes in total. People could watch them at any time during the conference and message presenters with questions or comments. I have heard of other conferences using social media platforms like Twitter to facilitate discussion and involvement with other presenters. Essentially, the pandemic has changed not only the visual format of presentations but also how we are able to interact with one another’s presentations. 

Helen B.: Similar to most things in graduate school over the past year, the pandemic shifted how professional conferences are run. In 2020, many conferences were cancelled all together, but in 2021 most conferences went virtual. Keely and I submitted our abstract to something called a rapid spotlight, for which we were asked to create a two minute video condensing all of our findings. Like Keely mentioned, many conferences used social media platforms to facilitate conversation you might experience while standing by your poster in non-COVID times. SBM encouraged folks to submit questions via email to the presenters to facilitate communication.

What’s it like to break down research findings into two minutes?

KB: Tough. Prior to COVID, you could give a 2 or 3 minute presentation on your poster and allow people time to read it over to fill in any information you didn’t share or to ask any questions that may have come up. Some people may have just glanced at your poster while walking by, others may have hung around for 10 minutes discussing your work. Having only 2 minutes to present without a way to share the extra information that would be available to be read on a poster meant we had to really consider what mattered most to help viewers understand our goals, methods, and findings. This did force us to share our findings in a concise, simple, easy to understand way which I think may have made it more accessible regardless of viewer background. Personally, I also think that getting to look at a well designed PowerPoint is much less overwhelming than looking at a full poster. 

HB: So challenging! Condensing information in an easy to understand and concise manner is a skill I’m always trying to work on for research presentations. This conference was unique in asking for a two minute video, in which Keely and I decided to split going over the study and its findings. We ended up practicing a few different iterations and removed bullet points or even entire slides in the process. Originally, we wanted to present all the details of our study, however, we discovered that trimming our slides down helped create a better presentation that was easier to understand. This experience also taught me to include more visuals than text when presenting, which I hope to take with me in future presentations!

What is something you learned from presenting virtually that you plan to take with you when you go back to in person conferences? 

KB: I think that I will be more inclined to design posters that emphasize the key pieces of the research process and takeaways rather than posters that have tons of information. While all of the information we include on posters is important to the study, I think it can create an overwhelming visual that can take away from the research itself if the audience is more focused on reading through all the detail or avoids looking at the poster because there is so much detail. Finding the happy medium between a super-condensed 2 minute PowerPoint and an extremely detailed poster will be my goal in the future! 

HB: Similar to Keely, this experience highlighted how important it is to choose a few key findings from a research study and explain them concisely and clearly. It was a great opportunity not only to practice explaining our research, but also how to do it more effectively moving forward.

-KB & HB