How to Prepare a Poster

1. POPULARITY OF POSTERS

In recent decades, posters presenting research have become ever more com­mon at national and international meetings. Sessions featuring such posters originated—apparently in the late 1960s through mid-1970s (Waquet 2008)— as follows: As attendance at meetings increased, and as pressure mounted on program committees to schedule more and more papers for oral presentation, something had to change. The large annual meetings, such as those of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, reached the point where the number of available meeting rooms no longer sufficed. And, even when sufficient numbers of rooms were available, the resulting large num­bers of concurrent sessions made it difficult or impossible for attending scien­tists to keep up with the work being presented.

At first, program committees simply rejected whatever number of abstracts was deemed to be beyond the capabilities of meeting room space. Then, as poster sessions were developed, program committees were able to take the sting out of rejection by advising the “rejectees” that they could consider presenting their work as posters. In the early days, the posters were relegated to the hall­ways of the meeting hotels or conference centers; nevertheless, many authors, especially graduate students trying to present their first paper, were happy to have their work accepted for a poster session rather than being knocked off the program entirely. Also, the younger generation of scientists had come of age during the era of science fairs, and they liked posters.

Nowadays poster sessions have become an accepted and meaningful part of many meetings. Large societies set aside substantial space for the poster presentations; at some meetings, thousands of posters are presented. Even small societies often encourage poster presentations, because some types of material may be presented more effectively in poster graphics and the accom­panying discussion than in the confines of the traditional 10-minute oral presentation.

Meanwhile, posters and poster sessions continue to evolve. Recent develop­ments include electronic posters, also known as e-posters or digital posters. More and more conferences feature e-poster sessions, for which posters are pro­vided digitally and displayed electronically. Some such sessions are limited to e-posters that have only static images and so are largely digital equivalents of conventional posters. Others display e-posters that incorporate dynamic ele­ments such as videos and animations. Also, some conferences include related sessions such as sets of 3-minute spoken “flash poster presentations” intended to interest attendees in visiting the speakers’ posters.

As poster sessions have become larger and more complex, the rules govern­ing the preparation of posters have become much stricter. When many posters must be fitted into a given space, obviously the requirements have to be care­fully stated.

Before starting to prepare a poster, be sure to know the requirements spec­ified by the meeting organizers. You of course must know the height and width of space available. The minimum sizes of type may be specified, as may other aspects, such as requirements for e-posters. As well as being given to the pre­senters, this information is likely to be available on the conference website.

2. ORGANIZATION

The organization of a poster normally should follow the IMRAD format (intro­duction, methods, results, and discussion), although graphic considerations and the need for simplicity should be kept in mind. There is very little text in a well-designed poster, most of the space being used for illustrations. In gen­eral, a poster should contain no more than 500 to 1,000 words (approximately the number of words in two to four double-spaced pages of a manuscript or in two to four typical article abstracts). If a poster is in landscape format, with the width exceeding the height, placing the content in three to five vertical col­umns generally works well. For posters in portrait format, two or three columns is usually the best choice. Unless the conference organizers require an abstract on your poster, do not include one; the poster as a whole is not much more extensive than an abstract, so an abstract tends to be redundant and waste valu­able space. Where feasible, use bulleted or numbered lists rather than para­graphs. If paragraphs are used, keep them short, for readability.

The introduction should present the problem succinctly; the poster will fail unless it has a clear statement of purpose at the beginning. The methods sec­tion will be very brief; sometimes a sentence or two will suffice to describe the type of approach used. The results section, which is often the shortest part of a written paper, is usually the major part of a well-designed poster. Most of the available space should be used to illustrate results. The discussion should be brief. Some of the best posters do not even use the heading “Discussion”; instead, the heading “Conclusions” appears over the far-right panel, the indi­vidual conclusions perhaps being in the form of numbered or bulleted short sentences. Literature citations should be kept to a minimum.

3. PREPARING THE POSTER

Preparing a poster often begins with preparing an abstract for the selection committee. Like that for an oral presentation, this abstract should be carefully written. It should conform to all stated requirements, and it should be read­ably worded, for easy peer review. Before writing the abstract, think ahead to what the poster would look like. Choose as your topic a part of your research that is focused enough to present effectively as a poster (Mitrany 2005) rather than trying to cover so much that a bafflingly cluttered poster would result.

You should number your poster to agree with the program of the meeting. The title should be short and (if feasible) attention-grabbing; if it is too long, it might not fit. The title should be readable out to a distance of 10 feet (about 3 m). The typeface should be bold and dark, and the type should be at least about 1 inch (about 25 mm) high—in other words, at least about 72 points. Unless the conference organizers require titles to be in capital letters, use mainly lower­case letters; in addition to taking up less space, they make the title easier to read as lowercase letters vary more in shape than capital letters do. (Compare “PRE­SENTING POSTERS” and “Presenting Posters.”) The names of the authors should be somewhat smaller. The text type should be large enough to be readily readable (normally at least 18 points). Large blocks of type should be avoided; where feasible, use bulleted or numbered lists.

A poster should be self-explanatory, allowing different viewers to proceed at their own pace. If the author must spend most of his or her time merely explaining the poster rather than responding to scientific questions, the poster is largely a failure.

Having lots of white space throughout the poster is important. Distracting clutter will drive people off. Try to make it very clear what is meant to be looked at first, second, and so forth (although many people will still read the poster backward). Visual impact is particularly critical in a poster session. If you lack graphic talent, consider getting the help of a graphic artist, for example from the media resources department at your institution.

A poster should contain highlights so that passersby can easily discern whether the poster is something of interest to them. If they are interested, there will be plenty of time to ask questions about the details. Also, consider prepar­ing handouts containing more detailed information; they will be appreciated by colleagues with similar specialties.

A poster may actually be better than an oral presentation for showing the results of a complex experiment. In a poster, you can organize the highlights of several threads well enough to give informed viewers the chance to recog­nize what is going on and then get the details if they so desire. The oral presen­tation, as stated in the preceding chapter, is better for getting across a single result or point.

The really nice thing about posters is the variety of illustrations that can be used. There is no barrier (as there often is in journal publication) to the use of color. All kinds of photographs, graphs, drawings, paintings, radiographs, maps, and even cartoons can be presented. Try to use images that both attract and inform. Make the images large enough to see easily, and keep them simple enough to understand quickly.

Once the poster is drafted, check it carefully. Be sure, for example, that all illustrations are clearly labeled and that the poster includes your contact infor­mation. Proofread the poster, and have others do so—lest you discover too late that your coinvestigator’s name was misspelled. If you are traveling by airplane to the conference, carry your poster with you. Do not check it in your luggage— which might be delayed until after the poster session if, as happened to a col­league of ours, you are flying to San Jose but your luggage gets routed to San Juan. Regardless of whether your poster is conventional or electronic, have a backup copy is case the original is lost, destroyed, or damaged. For example, carry a copy on a USB drive, email a copy to yourself, save a copy in the cloud— or do more than one of these.

There are many excellent posters. Some scientists do indeed have consider­able creative ability. It is obvious that these people are proud of the science they are doing and that they are pleased to put it all into a pretty picture.

There are also many terrible posters. A few are simply badly designed. The great majority of bad posters are bad because the author is trying to present too much. Huge blocks of typed material, especially if the type is small, will not be read. Crowds will gather around the simple, well-illustrated posters; the cluttered, wordy posters will be ignored.

4. PRESENTING THE POSTER

A poster presentation is, as its name says, both poster and presentation. Typi­cally, for some of the time the poster is on display, one or more of the authors accompany and discuss it. Thus, preparing a well-designed poster constitutes only part of a successful poster presentation.

Leave your shyness behind when you accompany a poster. Now is not the time to hide behind the poster or stare at your shoes. Think ahead about ques­tions you might be asked, and verbally and otherwise show a readiness to answer questions. If occasion arises, ask questions as well. Take advantage of the chance for feedback. Also take advantage of the chance to network. Those talking with you might well include potential collaborators or employers.

What should you wear when presenting a poster? At some conferences, poster presenters typically wear suits. At others, they usually dress more casu­ally. If in doubt, ask a mentor or colleague who knows the norms. One light­hearted report of a very small study (Keegan and Bannister 2003) suggests that wearing colors that coordinate with those of a poster might increase the number of visitors to the poster. A photo of a presenter wearing clothes color- coordinated with his poster appears on the web page “Designing Conference Posters” (colinpurrington.com/tips/poster-design), which presents extensive advice on preparing and presenting posters; scroll down patiently to find this photo, for this web page is extensive.

As noted, consider having handouts available that present your work in more detail; remember to include your contact information. Also consider hav­ing printouts of your poster and copies of papers describing related research you have done. If you run out of handout materials or wish to share materials that you did not bring, obtain email addresses and send the materials as attachments. Perhaps have business cards available too. And if, for example, you are seeking a postdoctoral fellowship or a job, perhaps have copies of your curriculum vitae or resume on hand.

In short, take advantage of the interactive opportunities of the poster ses­sion. As your professional community comes to you, present your work and yourself at your best.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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