When I was a graduate student, back in the Pleistocene, there was always a lot of excitement around our specialty's annual convention. The graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in the department all prepared abstracts months in advance of the meeting. (Those abstracts were often works of fiction, reporting data that we hadn't finished analyzing. The coming months were often a desperate scramble to finish the analysis before the meeting. But that's another story.)
We sent these carefully chiseled stone tablets to the meeting's program committee, and then we eagerly awaited their responses. Just about every abstract submitted was awarded a place in the meeting, but it was a special honor to be selected to deliver the paper as an oral presentation, and we were always disappointed when we learned that we'd been relegated to the poster session instead.
I carried that prejudice against poster sessions well into my science writing career. When covering a conference I attended oral sessions exclusively, never even glancing at the list of poster presentations. That all changed when I started a new job and had to return with a dozen or more articles from each meeting, not just the one or two top stories.
In desperation I began trolling the poster sessions, and I quickly discovered that they were well stocked with tasty fish. Here (in no particular order) are some of the reasons I love poster sessions in medical meetings.
- Walking through poster sessions is a far more efficient use of my time than sitting in oral presentations. Since scientists present information in the exact opposite way as journalists (conclusions at the end instead of in the lede), I usually have to sit through the entire presentation to figure out whether it's as newsworthy as I guessed, based on the title. Most oral presentations in research meetings are 10-15 minutes long, and in that time I can walk past and scan the conclusions of at least a dozen posters.
- Posters are often put up first thing in the morning and taken down either at lunchtime or at the end of the day. That gives me hours to take a look at it, and I can shoehorn it into any part of my daily schedule. But if I miss a 10 minute talk that I need to hear, I'm screwed.
- I like to walk through the poster room after the posters have been put up, but before the official start of the poster session. The room is quiet then and not too crowded. I can look at a poster and decide whether it's newsworthy without the author eagerly asking if I'd like an explanation of the experiment. If I need an explanation, further information, or a quote, I can always come back later, when the author is standing by the poster.
- With posters I can easily pull out my digital camera, and in one or two or three photos, I can capture every word and every number. In oral presentations, I need voice recordings plus photos of practically every PowerPoint slide to get the same coverage. And then I have to listen to the recording and look at 30 individual slides.
- Most program committees from most medical societies don't scrutinize the abstracts as closely as I believed they did when I was a graduate student. It's simply not true, in most meetings, that the most important studies are presented at oral sessions, and the second-rate studies are consigned to the poster sessions. In fact, I think it's often just the opposite. Many oral presentations are general overviews of a topic (in some meetings this is true of most oral presentations), which is relatively useless when you're looking for actual news. Poster presentations, on the other hand, are more likely to be highly focused reports on a single study.