(mis)communicating your work

(mis)communicating your work

If you read my personal blog, you know that I’m on travel for a conference this week.  This conference has been much different than the ones I’ve attended before.  It was a lot smaller and easier to get to talk to people.  I really enjoyed that aspect.  Also, I saw a lot of work on areas closely related to fields where I’m working rather than having everything from here to the moon (and, for some conferences, beyond that).

Another area where things were different was the poster session.  I mentioned on my own blog that the posters were very visual without much text.  I typically ‘narrate’ my posters with text, but they’re typically more visual than others I’ve seen at big conferences.  However, this time, I was far more wordy than I should have been.  I could’ve easily stripped most of the text and left the pictures, making the poster smaller and saving me a lot of work.  However, going around and reading the posters was sometimes difficult.  I wasn’t really sure what they were getting at, and unless you asked the person (assuming they weren’t already talking to someone else), you couldn’t necessarily figure it out from the poster.

This is odd, however, as I typically go the other way.  I go bananas when someone puts up a powerpoint slide full of text.  I know a lot of people do this because the slides are distributed, but I always thought that’s what reports were for.  On the other hand, I’ve seen slides full of data and plots.  It gets to be too much to process.  In particular, I remember a talk where it was slide after slide of data, and I realized that if they’d combined some of them into a single plot with several quantities on the same plot, the talk would’ve been shorter and much easier to follow.

It’s very difficult to get a feel for whether you’re effectively communicating the important details and overall importance of your work.  So, readers, do you have any opinions or rules of thumb for the different ways to communicate your work?


Figure out what the ‘story’ is, the narrative you want to tell. Once, I have the story, then I fill in the data to support that story. To me, this method makes a much better presentation/poster than just throwing all the data up there.

I give talks on a small niche of the already poorly understood field of astronautics. I gave some talks in recent years where I was worried I’d made them too basic and patronizing. People thanked me. Explaining orbits is enough work. Explaining Lagrange orbits even more so. Explaining how a solar sail can change a Lagrange orbit is a whole other story. Nice 3D rendered pictures of the scenario, few to no words, plain English explanations using the pictures, and daring to go too basic – from my perspective – made all the difference. I’ve heard it called the “curse of knowledge” of our own work that we need to get over.

Yeah, posters are different, because they need to tell the story in your absence.

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