I happen to enjoy making posters for scientific conferences because I think that posters provide a rather unique challenge. You really need to be able to cull down your research into the most basic sense because of the space limitation but still keep the poster informative, intriguing, engaging, and appealing to the eye. To successfully address these diverse factors, you need some careful planning and a creative mindset. I have presented posters at multiple conferences/symposiums, and I will now outline helpful poster design/presentation tips by using a poster that I presented at the 2015 Society for Neuroscience conference. This poster is extremely similar to the one that I presented at the marine biology graduate student symposium at my university and that I was subsequently awarded first place for. I have also included another poster that I presented at an oil spill conference (shown in full at end of page), which consequently resulted in me being interviewed for a podcast.
1. Start Early
– This is always a good tip and something that I also reiterate quite a bit with oral presentations and grant writing. Formatting and crafting a good poster takes time, so be sure to start on it ahead of time! Furthermore, if you are doing a collaborative project, remember that the other members of the research project may want time to make corrections to the poster as well.
2. Whittle Your Words
– After starting early, this is without a doubt my next most valued tip. Be totally merciless cutting out words. Nobody is going to spend 40 minutes at your poster reading the book that you printed up there. You do not need to include your entire publication on a poster. To help in this endeavor, I recommend using bullet points. Your poster should get your main points across. It is not there to be all inclusive. Moreover, when you present a poster at a conference, you should be standing next to it to “fill in the blanks” of your poster and answer any questions reviewers may have.
– In the excerpt from my poster below, I basically culled down two paragraphs of information into six bullet points. If you notice, I also explain some terminology because I did not assume that the general audience would know what the word “anisotropic” meant. Furthermore, “innervation investment” could mean multiple things. Since this term is crucial to understanding the rest of my poster, I took the time to define it.
3. Spice Up Your Poster
– No, I am not talking about putting images of the Spice Girls on your poster… Use creative and appealing color schemes! For this particular poster, I primarily used a teal color. While this color is not a revolutionary idea in any sense, I was also going to present this poster at a marine biology symposium. If you have never been to a marine biology symposium before, let me tell you that it feels like you are actually in the ocean. Every poster is touting that same bright ocean blue color. So, by using a slightly off-blue color, I made my poster stand out from the others. Plus, I used other non-blue colors like purple, pink, and green to highlight more minor aspects of my poster.
– Use pertinent pictures. As a two-time judge for undergraduate marine biology posters at my university’s student symposium, I know lots of students do undergraduate projects on dolphins. (Although, I do care about dolphin health and conservation, I was extremely adamant about not doing a graduate project on dolphins. Being blonde and blue-eyed and conducting research on dolphins was just a little bit too cliché for me. That being said, I ended up doing my GIS project on dolphins and subsequently presented my work at a conference, and it is the poster featured in this blog page. There is no escaping the dolphins apparently!) Regardless if you cannot escape the allure of the dolphins, use the pictures sparingly. The undergraduates at my alma mater tended to overuse nonessential pictures, especially of dolphins. When you use a picture, make sure it has a purpose. This tip is lenient towards any small pictures that you add in the extra space by your title, but remember that the space on your poster is precious and should not be wasted just because you find dolphins super totally adorable. Seals are also fat and cuddly, but I refrain from using extraneous pictures of seals on my whisker poster.
– Be creative! In a (debatable) stroke of genius, I decided to spice up my poster bullet points by changing them to actual images of whisker cross-sections. I got great feedback on this, and it made my poster stand out and gave it more color/pizzazz.
4. Highlight Your Questions
– There is usually quite a bit of information on your poster. Help out the reviewer by making it easy for them to find your main hypotheses, questions, and/or objectives. If you do not, they could go through your whole poster and still be wondering what you were trying to do and why it is important.
5. Feng Shui Your Poster
– What I mean by this is to organize your poster logically. For my whisker poster, I thought that the methods section was best explained in pictures. Consequently, I made a flow diagram of sorts and labeled it appropriately. Within this section, I also used color coordination. I think this is a great idea for posters because it allows the reader to make an instantaneous connection between ideas without you having to use words. It is also an easy way to add more color to your poster. I used this strategy in my Results section as well.
– Another point of interest here is the negative space. I know you are stressed about making every millimeter of your poster count but there is a point where it is too much. A poster that does not strategically use the negative space will look cluttered and overwhelming to a reviewer. Subsequently, people may walk by your poster because the task of wading through your poster information and layout seems daunting at first glance.
6. Be Precise
– This tip refers to both proofreading your poster and checking it for proper alignment. It is extremely important to proofread. While your poster may look tiny in your Powerpoint setup, once you print it, your mistakes will be glaringly obvious to everyone reading your poster. Use the “Gridlines” function in Powerpoint to make sure that your text, pictures, and boxes are all properly spaced.
7. Follow Instructions
– If a symposium or conference gives you guidelines to follow for your poster (dimensions, include abstract, etc), follow them! This is definitely important if you are trying to win some sort of presentation award. Although there were not any poster prizes at the oil spill conference that I presented at, the overarching theme/questions of the conference where: What have we learned? What does it mean? and How can it be used? To make sure that the poster that I was presenting was appropriately formatted for the conference and clearly addressed the most important topics of the conference, I added those questions to my Discussion section to make it easier on my audience.
8. Make a Printout
– I was always told that when you print out your poster, you should be able to read it. This is a good guideline for determining how large your text should be, but it is also helpful if you want to offer printouts of your poster to reviewers. I think having printouts to accompany your poster (and that also include your contact information) is a great idea. This way even if people come by your poster and you are not there, or they just want to research more about your project, they can take the information with them.
9. Practice Different Spiels
– Some people will want a super quick (30sec) run through your poster, while others will want a more in-depth spiel. The recommended length that I usually find is up to five minutes. You do not really want to be going over five minutes because, theoretically, you will have other people walking by your poster as well. It is likely that they will pass up your poster if you are in the middle of explaining your research because they will have missed all of the background information that you already gave, consequently leaving them with only a disjointed understanding of your poster. Most people who are really interested in your topic will stick around, but you do not want to lose out on opportunities to explain your research to people because you decided to give an oral presentation instead of a poster presentation.
10. Prepare for Questions
– One thing that I have learned, in general, from presenting at conferences is that people tend to ask about their research, not yours. They are trying to relate what you study to how it can be applied to what they study. For instance, presenting at marine biology symposiums at my university meant that I would be explaining my research to a multitude of people who study fish. Hence, when I talk about the fantastic ability of seals to track fish through the water column using only their whiskers, I inevitably get these questions: What types of fish do they track? How far away can they track fish from? Does the size of the fish matter? (FYI: Even after three minutes a fish the size of a goldfish can leave a wake trial behind that seals could perceive with their whiskers. A herring-sized fish, swimming at 1m/s, can leave wake trails behind that are still detectable to a seal 180m away! That’s one and a half football fields!)
– Remember your audience. I usually have to field questions about the neurobiology behind my research. However, at the neuroscience conference, I mainly had to explain things about pinnipeds in general, like if they could echolocate or smell underwater (No). It was a nice change of pace for me. So, think about what types of research people who might look at your poster do and try your best to prepare for those types of questions as well.