Poster presentations… Life-sized versions of your research paper you have to stand next to while hundreds of people walk past. It’s not the dream of every scientist, but you want to make the best of it and take advantage of the networking opportunity. We help you to make a beautiful and effective poster presentation!

Your research is important, so why waste everyone’s time with a poster with the main message hidden in bullet points and a design that makes it challenging to decipher text and tables?

What is the goal of your poster presentation?

A quick reminder: The main goal of a poster presentation is not to share your research results. If that were the case, you could just publish it, email it to colleagues in your field or hand out copies of your paper during conferences. Instead, the goal of standing next to your poster is to have interaction with other researchers in your field, learn from their critical questions, feedback, and suggestions, and make connections for future collaborations.

Your new goal is to present your work clearly and make sure that people stop to talk to you about your work. To achieve this goal, you and your poster need to STAND OUT. If you do it well, presenting your poster is an incredible learning opportunity. In our e-book about designing presentations, we talk a bit more about how to define your goal and message. Think about what your main message is, WHY your message is so important (typically the ‘background’ section) and only then WHAT the evidence is supporting your message (the ‘results’ section).

Write down your research in a single sentence

We do this exercise in our science communication workshops a lot:

Write down your entire research in a single sentence (commas are allowed). Don’t worry if you don’t get it on the first try. In our workshops, we often start out by writing it down in a single paragraph or a one-minute speech and then shorten it until you have a single sentence. Answering the following questions help you get started:

Why are you doing your research? What is your ultimate goal?

e.g. We want to slow down Alzheimer’s disease, find a cure for small-cell carcinoma, find out which cells are responsible for skin cancer. We want to improve patient care in hospitals. We want to understand the environmental causes of obesity. We aim to study the best way to lose weight. We want to develop a new standard for research outcomes. (Just a few examples from our clients)

What is the underlying problem? Sometimes your research goal is more obscure than curing cancer or solving obesity. People will know these are major problems, and you do NOT need to point this out to them. However, you might be solving a problem people don’t know about yet. If that’s the case, you have to explain the problem AND the goal or solution to the problem. e.g. We think there is a better way to diagnose disease X than is currently done because current practice is very costly.

What exactly are you looking at in your research? How are you executing your research?

e.g. you are studying human behavior, performing cell microscopy, literature research in the national archives, interviews in local communities.

e.g. you are using epidemiology, meta-analysis, RCT, In-vitro study, computer modeling, AI, fieldwork, (online) questionnaires.

What makes your research, approach, or team unique?

e.g. We’re doing the first multi-disciplinary research into obesity prevention / We have an international team with over 20 participating countries / We developed a unique new technique or methodology / We combine all available data to date / We have a specific breed of mice that might answer the question better / This is the first time anyone has ever looked at X or used method Y.

This would result in a sentence like this:

To find out how to slow down Alzheimer’s disease, we are using new metabolomic profiling techniques to find pathways to prevent beta-amyloid proteins from forming harmful plaques in the brain.

This can be the new subtitle or large quote of your poster! It’s the main summary of what you’re trying to achieve.

Have a question as your main title

For the main title, you might want to use something even shorter. You can choose to have a question as a main title. This might lure more people to your poster than a statement. What about “Mental health in hospitals: what can health professionals do to ease the pain?”. It’s the perfect start to a conversation. Imagine what the first question would be that you can ask a person approaching you. It does not tell the whole story but makes people curious enough to walk up to your poster to read the answer or have a discussion with you.

Another example:

QUESTION: Will assessing differentiated dysplasia improve risk assessment of leukoplakia better than current WHO standards?

STATEMENT: Adding differentiated dysplasia to classic dysplasia assessment is a stronger prognostic indicator (HR:7.2) for malignant transformation than current WHO standards.

The 5-second science communication rule

In general, you only have a few seconds to grab attention with your poster. People will only stop at your poster if they are drawn in by an interesting title or a stunning design. When they decided to slow down and start reading more, it takes them about 30 seconds to read your poster. This is not reading in a traditional sense, but more skimming the titles. This means that if your titles are words such as Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion they will still have no idea what your research is about!

Reading your poster should not be a chore. Test it with some friends or colleagues. Show them your poster for 30 seconds, and ask them what they think is your main message, and what result/word/graph/design piqued their interest.

Poster prep-time!

  1. Think about what you want to get out of this poster presentation. Do you want to connect with at least 3 senior researchers? Do you want to get feedback on a specific result? Do you want to discuss your methods and ask others how they would do this?
  2. Prepare what you want to say when someone approaches your poster. Or better yet, what you want to ask them.
  3. Think about what critical questions people may have about your poster and prepare a short answer. Is your research about dairy and it is funded by the dairy industry? Expect some critical questions. Be grateful you get these questions, it’s what proper scientific discussion is all about!

Do not conform to “standards” imposed by the conference

We know that you often have to adhere to guidelines for your poster presentation. Maybe you have to abide by a standard template from your institution, or have huge logos from every single collaborator (and even pictures of their locations!) on it. We advise that you do NOT give in to these demands without a fight. Remember: these guidelines are not made by science communication experts, but often by the press officer with a desire for a uniform look or by more senior scientists who think design is something achieved by rainbow-colored text effects in Word. You get our frustration…

Of course, it’s good to adhere to the physical format of the poster mount and have large and legible text, but we’ll try to push you out of your comfort zone here a bit. You will not get punished by anyone for using different colors than your institution, use a different font, and use design in a way that makes your research pop. Remember: you can not stand out if your poster looks like all the other boring posters in the room!

TEXT: How to make sure your main message stands out

Don’t structure your presentation like a paper

Ditch the abstract/introduction/results/conclusion/acknowledgments structure and create your own interesting titles. Instead: write conclusive titles that people can skim. This means that you should make sure that your titles (the largest texts on your poster) tell your story.

Turn headings into conclusions & quotes.

Instead of the vague descriptive title “Costs of diabetes” you can turn it into the main conclusive message: “Total costs of diabetes have increased to $245 billion.” Which one do you prefer?

This means that you do NOT highlight the least interesting words on your paper, but let the MESSAGE stand out. We cringe when we see the words “Background” highlighted in huge bright blue text, and the main message obscured in smaller text.

An example: How to structure your research (based on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32023777).

Before:

Background

Methods

Results

Discussion

Conclusion

After:

Which behavioral and nutritional factors are targets for stomach cancer prevention programmes?

A meta-analysis and systematic review of 14 behavioral and nutritional factors in 52,916 studies.

Helicobacter pylori infection, smoking, alcohol, high salt intake were identified as the main factors contributing to stomach cancer.

These results may be utilized for ranking and prioritizing preventable risk factors to implement effective prevention programs.

As you can see, with the new structure, it’s already a short explanation of your entire research! Way to go!

TIP: Does your research show negative results? Shout it from the rooftops! Don’t be disappointed, your research is just as important as anyone else’s. Do not hide it, show it, so other people can learn from it.

DESIGN: Keep it clean and simple

How do you think you will come across if you use different backgrounds, colors and fonts for every slide? Does that really make you look creative and professional? We know it’s tempting, but don’t use every tool PowerPoint has given you to design with. Don’t use gradients, drop-shadows, text effects if you don’t know how to use them.

The design of your poster should support your story, provide structure, and make your presentation more effective. Design can also help distinguish between the main message and supporting information. By using different designs for your main thread and quotes, anecdotes, or examples you make sure people don’t lose sight of your most important messages.

We love to show bad examples, so check out this poster presentation dissection:

Dissecting a poster presentation design with feedback

Only use bullet points for actual lists

If there is one piece of advice we would love for you to remember from this post: do NOT use bullet points for sentences! It transforms them into weird short sentences and doesn’t make your messages any clearer. Please, only use bullet points for actual lists. Like countries or disease outcomes you are measuring. Disregard your instinct to put bullets before sentences and just write a nice readable paragraph instead. People will love you for it! If you’re feeling creative you can always ask yourself the question of whether there are better ways to visualize your bullet points. Showing the countries you’ve gathered data from in an actual map is MUCH more informative than a list (anybody knows where Kyrgyzstan is located exactly?). We often use https://mapchart.net/world.html for creating maps.

COLOR: When in doubt, start with white and grey, and add a single pop of color.

We’re not going to explain color theory here. And don’t be afraid to use ANY color you want. Just make sure to check whether it has enough contrast with the background to be legible (with the WebAIM contrast checker). Don’t waste your time on this. When in doubt, choose 1 single color (or shades of the same color) and combine it with black for text and white and light grey for backgrounds, boxes, and borders. Add a single pop of color to create focus where you want the audience to look, e.g. important keywords, arrows, and your main message. We have added some color scheme examples in our Poster Presentation Template (see below).

IMAGES: Only use images that contribute to your message

Text alone can be a bit uninspiring sometimes. We encourage the use of images but make sure they contribute to your message. Either use them to show which topic you are researching (e.g. plane aerodynamics, body fat distribution, or the history of women’s rights), or when they have intrinsic value and show something that you cannot point out in words (e.g. the location of an aorta stent, or the flow of information between low-orbit satellites). Don’t add cute images of people, landscapes, university buildings or flower patterns to spice up your poster. Check out our favorite resources for good free copyright-free images and design tools.

So please don’t use random useless stock photo’s like these in your presentation! #facepalm

GRAPHS: Make sure people can read a graph without having to consult a legend or description.

A graph is better than a table. It’s much easier to understand relationships in your data when presented visually in a graph than as numbers in a table. However, a conclusion drawn from the data, presented as a main conclusion with a single number (e.g. alcohol consumption is 23% higher in France than in Sweden) is better than your run-of-the-mill graph with a vague description of the two axes.

Write graph titles as a conclusion of your result.

Which title do you think is better?

Projected disease prevalence and mortality reduction over 20 years for the population aged 18 to 95 years in nine European countries with lower salt intake.

OR

Lower salt intake reduced the prevalence of stroke in Poland by 13.5%

Don’t use separate legends in your graph (e.g. those boxes on the side of the graph). If possible, put the text/label explaining what a line represents next to the line. This prevents people from having to go back and forth between the graph and legend to understand its message.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t copy your complex research paper title as the title on a poster. Create a short and snappy poster title that draws people in.
  • Don’t include any text, graph, or image that does not contribute to your main points. If people can understand your main message without them, leave them out.
  • Don’t use chart junk in your graphs, remove all unnecessary lines/gradients/grids.
  • Don’t use high-contrast boxes with rounded corners: this creates weird arrows between boxes that draw your eye to the area in between text.
  • Don’t use QR codes, people will have no idea what happens after they scan it and it’s often being used for fraudulent purposes.

Do’s

  • Rewrite the title into an intriguing question or statement, so people know what to talk to you about.
  • Make sure that your main purpose/unique proposition/interesting result is the largest text on the poster. You should be able to read it from five meters away.
  • Make sure that everything on the poster is self-explanatory. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms.
  • Make sure it’s clear from the poster who you are. Highlight one of the authors, or add a (recent, professional) portrait, so people can also find you later if they visited the poster when you were away.
  • White. Space. Scientists seem to think that white space is wasted space that needs more text crammed in. The opposite is true. More white space makes your poster seem less daunting, and easier to approach.
  • Have a call to action on your poster. Who do you want people to contact, and what would you want to talk about in future communications? Include your Twitter, LinkedIn, email if possible.
  • When in doubt about the colors: choose white and light grey and add a single pop of color. It’s the safest bet!
  • Avoid jargon. You can get into jargon and details AFTER people have approached you and your poster.
  • Use enough contrast between the background and letters so people can actually read it. You can check your contrast at: https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/

Creative ideas for those who are ready to conquer the world with their research:

  • Laminate your poster and give people a whiteboard marker to write things on it or highlight sections they think are important. This is not only a nice gimmick that people will remember, but can be good for you as a reminder of the feedback you were given. As an added bonus it gives visitors a chance to interact with each other.
  • Bring a prop related to your research to the stand. Do you research fat cells? Bring a pound of lard with you. Do you research tooth health? Bring a plastic jaw with you that people can look at.

Tip: Print on textiles instead of paper. Easier to take with you on a plane without tearing or creasing. However, do this only when you are going to use the poster multiple times, it’s a waste of material otherwise.

To hand out or not to hand out?

A hand-out is a great way to get into depth without cramming every single detail into your poster. But you might just have printed 20 copies and nobody to hand it out to. Also, who reads all the things they collect when they get home? In other words: we do not advise you to bring hand-outs.

As useful as it may seem, we think that making the connection is more important than sharing the details of your research right then and there. So instead, give out your LinkedIn or ResearchGate details or your personal website URL, so you are instantly connected and they will see any new updates you post in their timeline. If they are still interested in the details, you have their contact information to send them your paper when it’s published!

POSTER PRESENTATION – A CASE STUDY

Have you read all our tips but still don’t know how to implement them in your poster? Don’t worry, we will go over a case study of an existing poster presentation.

For this case study, we worked together with Joseph Diab, a PhD candidate in bioanalytical chemistry at The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) doing research into Ulcerative Colitis. He wanted to update his poster for his next poster presentation and volunteered with us to make it better.

The BEFORE poster

The poster he made was a typical poster, not bad at all actually, we’ve seen much, much worse… But there was plenty to improve. Let’s go over the poster to find out what could be improved.

The good thing about the poster was that the main title was written in big text, and he even emphasized the most important words. This is a great way to have it stand out more. He did not fall into the trap of having his paper title as the main title, and put it in smaller text below. He was right to make the conclusion bigger as well.

However, there is room for improvement. When you look at the poster while squinting your eyes, only the main title jumps out at you. There is not much larger text to scan to get a feel for what he’s trying to tell us. We’re also missing the reason he is doing this research. Why is it important to reveal the metabolomic signature? If the urgency is missing, people might walk past your poster.

So, to make his poster better we’ve given Joseph some homework questions about his research. These are his answers:

What do you want to get out of this poster presentation?  Joseph: I want to get feedback on how to proceed and validate these finding, and how to unravel the role of microbiota in IBD (Inflammatory bowel disease).

Can you tell me in your own words what the main purpose of your research is? Joseph: IBD is an untreatable nasty disease. The only available treatment just makes the patients go from active inflammation into remission. Most of these patients will develop inflammation again. Moreover, 20-30% of the patients develop very severe outcomes and need surgery, and they might die from complications or from cancer (caused by the treatment failure). In my research, we aim to find a biomarker to predict the outcome from the moments the patient gets the diagnosis.

Why is your research unique? Joseph: This is the first study to determine the full proteomic and transcriptomic profile in treatment-naïve and deep-remission UC patients.

What is the relevance of your results in the real world? Joseph: We are using metabolomics to improve the patient’s stratification in IBD.

We love it when researchers explain something in their own words, it’s so much clearer than when written as a paper! Here are the steps we took to improve his poster:

Step 1: Create an engaging main message.

We’ve rewritten the main message of his poster to include the main goal of his research (to improve IBD treatment) and made it a bit more interesting by adding part of his research results stating that he has found the “first clue”. This is a great way of showing that each research project is just one small step towards final answers, and this can make your audience a bit more curious. Who doesn’t like to figure out clues? This way the title also gives away a part of the results, which makes it easier for people to understand what you’ve accomplished.

Before: Ulcerative Colitis is characterized by altered tryptophan and fatty acid metabolism.

After: Finding biomarkers to improve the personalized treatment of Ulcerative Colitis. Altered tryptophan and fatty acid metabolism provide the first clue.

Step 2: Put the most important messages first.

In Joseph’s poster, like in so many, the conclusion is hidden away at the end of the poster. We’ve moved it up next to the title. In addition, we’ve moved the author affiliations to the bottom of the poster. They were taking up too much prime real estate, and it’s not very relevant for your audience.

Step 3: Create an effective design

We were lucky that Joseph was doing research in a field that is easy to visualize. Ulcerative Colitis is a disease of the large intestines, so we used an illustration of one to enhance the design. This was not just to “make it pretty”, but also to visually show the topic and draw your eye towards the most important message: the conclusion. People recognize an intestine much faster than reading the text.

We stayed away from the boring academic blue. Everybody is using it, which is a good reason to not use it yourself (the easiest way to stand out!). In this case the best choice was to just use the colors from the image. With this bright pink as an accent color, and whites and greys as main colors, you generate a nice cohesive color scheme in a snap!

TIP: If you can find a relevant image for your poster, always use that color in your color scheme! PowerPoint now has an eyedropper tool that enables you to pick any color from an image and use it in texts or boxes.

We wanted to separate the different paragraphs, but not draw too much attention to it by using dark backgrounds, thick borders or lots of contrast, so we used subtle shadow which divides the main sections but does not distract.

Step 4: Emphasize your most important messages

Our advice is to de-emphasize words such as methods and background. However, this might be a bit scary, since it deviates so much from what posters have looked like for years. So we decided to keep it, but use a smaller font size. We used the pink color to emphasize the most important sentences and draw your eyes towards them. If you squint and just read the larger pink text, you should be able to understand the research. We wanted to make it stand out more and make it bigger, but there was not enough space on the poster to increase the font size. An important lesson in working with limitations!

Step 5: Make it engaging and easy to understand for your audience

To make sure the answers to Joseph’s homework were included in the poster, we came up with the “What’s new” section. Just reading this section gives you a very good grasp of the main goal and why the research is unique.

The “How can you help?” section prompts the visitor to have a conversation and invites them to share their ideas about this topic. This is the conversation starter you need for a successful poster presentation.

Step 6: Kill your darlings

There is never enough space on a poster, so we needed to scrap some of the texts and graphs. For each graph, we asked whether it was really necessary to include. Did this graph really contribute to the main message, or could anyone at the conference understand the research perfectly fine without it?

As you can see, we ditched one of the two almost similar multivariate analysis graphs. They showed almost the same thing. We also removed the Venn diagram. It contained some very detailed information that was not essential for the main message and therefore took up too much valuable space.

We also wrote new titles for the graphs in the results section. Instead of a descriptive title (Pathway analysis), we wrote a concluding title (Integrated pathway analysis provides a unique and detailed snapshot of the metabolic changes in the onset of UC.). You want to give away your conclusion from the graph, not have people spend 5 minutes trying to figure it out themselves from looking at the dots.

In the graphs we made the outlying pathways more prominent with the dark blue background, so you can immediately find these pathways without having to read all of them.

Step 7: Background information & call to action

There is always some boring information you have to include, or your supervisors won’t be happy. Logos of your institutions, affiliations, the title of your paper. We put them where they belong: on the bottom of the page in smaller font. Very few people will be interested in this at first glance.

We do want to show who the person is behind the poster, so we kept the headshot of Joseph and added a call to action: Connect with Joseph Diab for more details and a discussion of this paper.

This lowers the threshold for people to connect with Joseph later. After all: he invited them to email him already! Since Joseph is active on Twitter we included his Twitter handle as well as his email address. This is very important. If you want to keep in touch with people who pass by, you have to give them your contact information.

A QR code might sound very hip, but we advise against using it. For starters, it’s not really telling anyone where you will end up. Are you linking to the paper, to Joseph’s personal website, his Twitter account, or his University’s website? People might not even have a smartphone or QR reader. The best thing is to ask people on the spot to connect with you on LinkedIn, Twitter, or send you an email, so you’re sure they will keep in touch.

The result:

Example of a good poster presentaton design

Check out Joseph attracting attention with his new poster at the European Crohn’s and Colitis Organisation (ECCO) 2020 annual congress:

A poster presentation template to not take too seriously

Want to get a head-start on designing your poster? We’ve developed a simple template for your poster to get you ahead of the curve. But don’t take this template too seriously! In fact, we usually advise against using templates, if everybody starts using them, nobody will stand out. It’s your job to make it interesting and fit your needs and limitations.

Download our Poster Presentation Template (PPTX)

Let us know what you think!

Do you have a question that wasn’t answered in this article? Write to me at liesbeth@theonlinescientist.com, or check out our e-book on designing better presentations, where we elaborate on writing your story and more design tips!