What makes a good conference poster?

Tips, encouragement and resources to help your poster preparations
What makes a good conference poster?

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The scientific poster has long been a popular medium for presentation of research results at conferences. FEBS meetings were an early adopter of the format, and our annual Congress continues to value them – they balance the top-down delivery of talks from senior scientists by allowing active participation from the meeting delegates themselves, they bring a large number and range of recent findings to the event, and they help researchers to get feedback on their work and connect with others working on similar questions. Moves to improve poster presentations based on technological innovations, including e-posters and post-conference repositories, may gather pace, but for now the simplicity of display and tradition of printed posters means they remain an important part of many meetings – both big and small.

For those tackling the preparation of a poster for the first time, a few pointers are gathered here based on guides available online and advice kindly provided by three senior PIs from the FEBS Publications Committee: Gerry Melino (Rome), who works on cell death, Seppo Meri (Helsinki), a complement system expert, and Aristidis Moustakas (Uppsala), whose research spans signal transduction and cancer biology.

‘What makes an excellent poster? Simplicity, clarity, quality of images.’ Gerry Melino

First things first: content and message

The content of your poster may already be obvious to you – or you may have a choice of several strands of research, work at various stages of completion, and worries about revealing too much before publication. So what should go into your poster?

Our experts recommend including findings that are close to submission for journal publication, with Gerry seeing it as an opportunity ‘to obtain important comments, discussion and final advice’ before finalizing a journal paper. This approach allows convincing, completed data to be presented and diminishes fears of scooping, although ‘if in doubt, better to show rather than hide data – people appreciate openness,’ adds Seppo.

Compared with a journal paper though, the poster will need to be very focused and selective. ‘Concentrate only on the main issues, preferably on one key question,’ recommends Seppo, who sees ‘clear message, clear logic’ as essential parts of a successful poster.

‘I always wanted to make a 3D poster with interactive parts…plus a good service with beer (and two small chairs and a table with pretty flowers on it). That would make a nice environment for a scientific chat!’ Seppo Meri

Time to get creative: images, text, layout

Scientists are not usually trained graphic artists, but the ability to communicate your work in a clear and engaging visual manner is a useful skill to develop. The resources listed at the end of this piece offer many useful tips – from software choice to font sizes to image handling. You may also have guidance available from your own institute.

Clearly, graphics are essential both for the presentation of the findings of the poster’s ‘story’ and as parts of the poster that catch the eye and encourage people to stop and explore your work. In fact, Gerry recommends starting the layout of the poster with the images and legends, and then to ‘rearrange with the best logic, simplify, distil’. Aristidis suggests, especially nowadays when many high-throughput experiments might be presented, using one or two overview figures ‘to summarize “huge” analysis and then move on, instead of filling up half the poster with various representations of the same data set’.

Use the title and headings to quickly orientate poster viewers to the key points, and keep text brief and easy to understand. Material aligned in columns or rows works well, but a more imaginative layout, perhaps inspired by particular subject matter, can help make a poster stand out from the crowd. Whatever the layout though, lead the viewer through the poster in a logical way: for example, Aristidis makes the point that numbering of panels and figures is often overlooked but is important to avoid the reader having to guess whether to read down or across the poster. Margins and gutters also matter – as Seppo advises, ‘use the whole space, but leave air in between’. Colour can also be overused; he suggests designing a colour theme and applying it logically.

‘If time permits, do not hesitate to invite top scientists in your field to show them your exciting work. Being humble is important but so is showing some vigour and enthusiasm, and usually more senior scientists welcome invitations to an entertaining summary of a good poster.’ Aristidis Moustakas

At the event: explaining and connecting

A poster should be able to stand alone as an understandable presentation, but it can be brought to life by its presenter during a designated poster session. Bear in mind that some people may only want to skim your poster, or perhaps hear about just a couple of key points, while others may be interested in a more in-depth conversation – or even initiating a collaboration. Indeed, our experts all stressed the value of posters as tools for direct interaction with other motivated individuals and for obtaining comments. You might like to consider preparing mini-handouts of your poster for such viewers to take away.

Don’t forget also that all poster presenters need an audience. At the FEBS Congress, in addition to seeking out posters directly in your research area, do take the trouble to connect with poster presenters around you; aside from the possibility of an interesting exchange, this approach helps create the friendly and stimulating environment a FEBS Congress aims for.

Rowe, N. (2014) Poster presentations – the ‘then and now’ of a popular medium of scientific communication. FEBS News 2 (July), 9–10
General guides:
Creating effective poster presentations (Hess, G., Tosney, K. and Liegel, L.): https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/posters/
Designing conference posters: http://colinpurrington.com/tips/poster-design
How to create a research poster: http://guides.nyu.edu/posters
Zielinska, E. (2011) Poster perfect. The Scientist (September 2011 issue)
McNutt, M. (2015) It starts with a poster. Science 347, 1047 

Modified from an article first published in FEBS News July 2016, pages 9–10: http://www.febs.org/news/newsletter

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