How to Prepare a Poster Presentation That Rocks!

Similar to artists, scientists strive to publish their work for the world to see so that their research will contribute to our body of scientific knowledge. One means of publication is the poster presentation. I'd like to discuss why it's critical for researchers to invest time and effort in their posters and accompanying presentations not just for their peers but mainly for themselves. Stay tuned!

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Why should I bother?

Your Principal Investigator might have suggested that lab members consider submitting abstracts for an upcoming conference.  Some of your lab mates might even chuckle and suggest "it's a waste of time". While no one takes lightly a peer-review article publication or an oral presentation, poster presentations are often regarded as the underdog of scientific publications and thus not worth the investment.

I think not. Poster publication and presentation equips you with several important skills and advantages:

  • Practicing writing submission abstracts and complying to a rigid set of guidelines which are common in scientific publications.
  • Delivering an idea to an audience in a relatively informal manner which can lead to new ideas or avenues you hadn't previously considered.
  • Networking and connecting with peers (some of them might be interested in your skills and invite you to a post-doc at their lab).
  • Polish your idea and get feedback that can later lead to a better-prepared article.

Where and when do I start?

The only element which you can't control is time. Make sure you start planning and executing poster preparation several months before the conference so you won't be pressed to prepare a mediocre poster because you ran out of time.

Once you've decided the appropriate time frames, you should confirm the abstract submission deadline, how to submit the abstract and the expected travel and lodging costs. Then, decide on a topic that you would like to focus on in this poster presentation. It can be part of a project, it can be following an article outline that you've published or plan to publish soon. Mark the main statement and supporting minor statements and see how you connect them together. The flow should be intuitive and focused – don't go astray by trying to fit as much data as possible. A good story can be limited as long as it has a start, middle and an end. Then, read the guidelines for abstract and poster preparation and write your abstract – pass it on to your lab mates and PI for comments and editing. Don't take the abstract composing lightly since this abstract can be published in a journal summarizing the meeting and thus can appear on the web with your name as author!

Understanding the conference setting

Conferences are diverse in theme, scientific focus, and size. Which conference are you planning to attend? An international conference which has wide focus and hundreds of attendees, or an intimate meeting focused on a very specific topic? The larger the setting, the harder it will be for you to get attention for your poster and research.  In large conventions, thousands of posters may be lined along the wall, and attendees (you too!) will be overwhelmed by the amount of information, graphs, images and bold titles.  Thus, it is your task to make your poster pop out as much as possible while maintaining good taste and style. Furthermore, if the conference focus is wide, you should prepare your poster at a level appropriate for an audience which only has vague knowledge regarding to your specific research topic.

Preparing the poster – Text first!

The key for a great poster is a balanced use of text and images that will harmonize and stream along – the aim is to take your scientific work (which can sometimes be dull) and pack it in an inviting style.

Much like any publication, your poster should convey a clear message to the audience and thus you should use building blocks that are similar to that of a paper: Introduction and aims, results, discussion and concluding statement sections. Limited reference list and acknowledgement lines usually are the concluding sections of the poster.

There are several means to prepare a poster, whether through professional image editing software such as Photoshop/Illustrator or via relative simple means such as Powerpoint. Whatever your choice, I suggest you draft all sections in a word processor so it will be easier to share and receive corrections ("track changes mode") and to edit the text.

When composing, keep in mind both your audience and the limited space of the poster – write succinctly. Limit your text accordingly (note that text size can vary according to the type face):

  • Title (font size 60-70 pts) – Keep it as simple as possible, without a colon if possible.
  • Authors and affiliations (font size 40-50 pts and 25-35 pts, respectively) – Don't forget to add an underline under the name of the presenter, especially if it's not you.
  • Introduction (font size 25-35 pts) – Up to 250 words.
  • Aims/goals – One sentence.
  • Results – Better to put large figures with legends (font size 20-25 pts).
  • Conclusions – Distil your conclusions into 3-4 sentences, no more. A good place to put a model/mechanism if you have one.
  • References (font size 20 pts) - Limit the number of reference to the major ones.
  • Acknowledgements – Only if you have space available.

Preparing the poster – Images

The major difference between a published article and a poster is the environment. Your poster competes for attention among dozens of posters hanging in the immediate area around you so in order successfully attract attention you need to use a good combination of colors and imagery to attract attention. Large figures (as large as 1/3 of your poster length) can take a lot of space but can be easily noticed from afar. Instead of cramping all your data into the poster, better choose the key 4-5 figures and present them with good spacing and vivid colors (black and white can be boring!). Remember, bigger images will force the use of fewer words since space is limited, so balance your text with your figures - it's generally better to opt to use larger figures and less text than the other way around. Since the images will be printed as large pictures, make sure you prepare them at close to the desired size while using high resolution pixel density (>200 dots per inch or DPI). If your figures includes axes or any textual element, make sure they are big enough to be read easily 10 feet away. Also make sure the color model (CMYK or RGB) used by the print office and affirm your image's compliance to get the accurate color rendition. Print each image through a regular printer at the required size and monitor for any possible pixilation. If such a case occurs, you need to return to the image processor and prepare the image from scratch with the new dimensions. Only when you are satisfied that the image is good, move on to the next step.

Preparing the poster - Styling

Poster styling is one important aspect that many disregard, a bit like the analogy to oral presentations in which the way it is presented contributes more to the impact than the content itself.

When styling a poster seek the opinions of labmates, your PI and even other PIs and students in your department. Remember, style tastes vary tremendously and the larger the number of your poster's reviewers, the better chance your styling choice will hit the mark on the conference grounds. Before going through a styling session, refer to the poster preparation guidelines (size, portrait or landscape orientation) and then start playing around with the background and the text/graphics boxes.

  • Background – White colored-backgrounds are the safest way to go, though I would recommend using light pastel colors, if possible use colors that fit in tones with the color of the main figure or image, so as to attract and emphasize the importance of the presented figure.
  • Text boxes - Many graphical effects can be applied to text boxes in Photoshop yet you might consider using Powerpoint which can apply neat 3D box effects which can be fine tuned to your taste. Don't limit yourself to only rectangular text boxes – try circular or any other shape that can be both visually inviting and will fit the overall poster composition.
  • Font type face - It is recommended to use san-serif fonts for the title and subtitles (Arial, Tahoma, Verdana, Helvetica, Calibri) and serif fonts for the rest of the text (Times new roman, Calisto MT, Palatino linotype, Georgia, Garamond).

Preparing the poster - Printing

The poster file is ready, your PI gave you the green light to go ahead and print it. I find the best way to maintain size, font type and color is to save the file as PDF at high resolution (>200 DPI). If you're using the PDF distiller, you should make sure that:

  1. Color model is correct (CMYK or RGB)
  2. Switch off image down sampling
  3. Input the correct size of the poster

The advantages of using PDF format is the ability to visualize how the print will look, to maintain the exact type face (even if the print office doesn’t posses special fonts) and to maintain the exact position and effect of your text boxes.

Final note

While poster preparations can be demanding in terms of time, creativity and energy, you should always remember that visitors to your poster can help you see your project in a different light or give critical comments that will aid you in your PhD. It would be a waste not to make the most out of it.

Share with us your tips for the making of an award winning poster