How to Impress with Your Conference Research Poster
For many disciplines, conferences go hand-in-hand with poster presentations. Last week, as part of our Conference Success Series, I went over some pointers on How to Give a Winning Research Presentation. While many of the same principles apply to poster presentations, there are some unique aspects to keep in mind while you make your poster. This is what I’ll go over today.
I only very recently prepared my first research poster (I know, slightly embarrassing as a third year student...), so to make sure you won’t have anything to be embarrassed about when it’s your turn, I gathered all the tips and tricks you’ll need to impress with your first conference poster! The poster session is a trusted part of most meetings, workshops, and conferences in the science & engineering disciplines. It is a nice format to have an informal chat about the research you and others in your field are conducting, and is a great opportunity for networking. You’ll also inadvertently walk away with a fresh perspective, a new research idea, or a previously unfamiliar technique you might want to try yourself. As a PGR, poster presentations offer a training opportunity to learn how to communicate your research visually, but as an added bonus they are also a great way to stock up on prizes! Almost every meeting has a poster prize – cold hard cash, a travel grant, or product vouchers to use for your research – and they are always a great addition to your CV.
Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com
My first piece of advice is not to wait until your third year to start presenting research posters, like I did. It might make sense to wait with applying for oral presentations at conferences until you have a finished story, but there are several reasons why you should present posters throughout your PhD. First, taking part in poster sessions is not just about showcasing your own work, you will also learn about the latest research in your field, new techniques, and get to know your global colleagues. Second, conferences and poster presentations are simply a part of our job, so doing it often is a great training opportunity. The art of a creating a clear, attractive poster; giving a concise yet enthusiastic poster pitch; and effective poster session chit-chat and networking all require special skills. And, as always, the more you practice, the better at it you’ll become.
Creating the poster
Before you start, check the sizes specified by the organisation! You don’t want to end up being that one dummy that got the size or orientation wrong (trust me, there’s always someone). Posters are usually A0 size and portrait style, but it’s best to check. Another important decision to make is which programme to use. I opted for Adobe Illustrator, but many of my colleagues prefer PowerPoint due to its simplicity. Whatever you opt for, make sure to select the A0 size: even though you can create your poster at any size and just print it at A0 later, working on the size you will eventually use will help you avoid blurry pictures due to scaling issues. This is important, because the figures and text on your poster should be comfortable to read from around 1 meter distance. As a guideline, I used Arial at font size 85 for the title, 40 for authors, 25 for affiliations, 40 for highlights and conclusions, 30 for section titles, and 20 for figure descriptions and references.
Remember that computers use red, green, and blue (RGB) light to show colours, whereas printing is done with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) ink. This means that your printed poster may look different once printed. Adobe Illustrator allows you to work in either format while PowerPoint works strictly in RGB – but once you save your poster as a pdf, you can convert it to CMYK to check your colour scheme.
Go to Tools > Print Production > Convert Colors > select Any Object, Any Colorspace, Convert to Profile > tick Preserve Black, Promote Grey to CMYK Black, and Preserve CMYK Primaries > done!
Your next step is to decide on the story you want to convey. In many ways, a poster is infinitely more difficult than giving a talk about your research, as you are simply limited to only a couple of figures. Go over your latest presentation or paper and decide which figures are key to your argument and should be displayed, and which ones can be summarised in short sentences and can be left out. I know, I know, it’s like deciding which one of your kids/pets/parents you like the most! As researchers, we are so focussed on data that it feels wrong to replace digits and graphs with words, but it is important to remember that a scientific poster is a communication tool and therefore does not serve the same purpose as a data-driven paper where you can include 10 panels per figure. Include only your main figures and summarise other data in bullet-point lists or summarising drawings.
First, your poster should attract attention. This is best achieved by a clean design, decently sized figures and graphs with a cohesive colour scheme, and avoiding a cluttered look through the use of too many different sections. Use a short but encompassing title at the top to inform what your story is about. I find it best to avoid general phrases such as “characterising/investigating/elucidating [topic]” – this may be an accurate description of your project in general, but it is too broad for people to judge whether the poster will interest them. Rather, use a title that makes a statement about what you actually do and have found, rather than the bigger picture.
Second, your poster should convey information. Try to make it as self-explanatory as possible, as it is likely people will look at it while you are away viewing other posters. The main concepts should be understood within a minute of skimming. Use a clear title on top, accompanied by a short introduction with the main aims. Including a “highlights” box with the main findings and advances of your research helps to summarise the complex information you are displaying. Use subtitles for new sections that summarise the conclusion of that part, and use boxes or lining to separate parts. Title your graphs and axes and include clear legends: your poster should not be a puzzle! As a poster is a visual presentation, I’m a big fan of using review graphics or schemes to summarise what you have found rather than including a written summary. You can accompany this with a bullet-pointed list of conclusions for bigger emphasis. Avoid using whole sections from your manuscript: a poster requires shorter and more to the point wording.
This is how I designed my poster. Though I added the coloured boxes just for this figure, I did separate the 3 different parts by thin lining to make clear that they were separate elements.
Third, your poster should initiate a conversation. This is the biggest benefit of a poster over a general presentation: the interaction with your audience isn’t limited to a couple of questions at the end. Rather, you are able to exchange thoughts with another researcher in real time, which is, surprisingly, something we do not often have the chance to do. It’s great to shine and give a good presentation, but it’s more useful to gather feedback. Explain your poster in sections and check in whether your audience is still following in between, which creates a natural pause for them to ask a question and interact if they want to. Don’t be afraid to ask for their opinion! No matter how broad your view of your field is, when it comes to our own research we are often in a bit of an isolated bubble, with our research group’s point of view driving our actions. Of course this is only natural, but as with everything in life, there is rarely only one viewpoint or course of action to approach a question. Engaging with other researchers, and opening yourself up to being challenged, can open your mind to other attitudes and ways of approaching your research questions.
Attention by theAwkwardYeti.com
Preparing your pitch
Do you really have to prepare a pitch? Actually, I didn’t, but I wish that I did. It seems easy to present your poster: you are just talking to a single person about your work, right, surely you can manage that without practice? However, I don’t think it’s as easy as that, for the following reasons.
Any poster session I’ve attended so far seemed too short. We’re all passionate about our work and can chat away for ages at a single poster, which mean you can only visit a handful of them. That’s why I think any initial pitch should not exceed the 3 minute mark: there is nothing worse than getting stuck at someone’s poster that you quickly realise is not as interesting as you initially thought, eating up 15 minutes of your time, and therefore missing the opportunity to visit more relevant posters. I realised that the same principle applies to networking, which is why I would recommend to apply classic networking rules to your pitch! Start with a hook: why is your work important and what is the big picture? Give an outline: briefly describe what you do. Follow with your outcomes: go over your results and their greater implications. Try to focus on the conclusions and answers, rather than getting caught up in experimental details. People who are not doing similar work to you will get confused by the methodologies, those who are truly interested in details will ask themselves. Finish with one or two sentences about the future: what will you do next and what are your end goals? Again, focus on the big questions you want to answer rather than the methodologies.
Finally, as with any presentation, the way you present your research makes a huge difference. Try to convey your passion and enthusiasm, use your hands to guide your audience along the different elements of your poster, and don’t forget to make eye contact (you’re not talking to the poster!). Judging panels may allocate as much as 40% of your score to the spoken delivery, so presentation matters! Secret trick to impressing the judges? Don’t just try to impress by talking at them, but engage with them! They are likely to be more senior researchers that actually have a lot of useful advice to share.
Confession by theAwkwardYeti.com
Visiting other posters
Walking around without a plan will rarely make for a productive poster session. Identifying what a poster is about and whether it has any relevance to your own work can take a couple of minutes. At that time, the presenter has likely engaged you into their poster pitch already, cutting of your escape. A better strategy is to make a selection based on your abstract book. Reading the abstract before visiting the poster makes for a far more productive interaction at the poster, as you are already aware of the background of the research, the research questions, and some of the outcomes. This means you are ready to dive into the more intricate details of the research with your presenter. Indicate that you read the abstract and open with a question to ensure you don’t get treated to the standard pitch and can start a discussion relevant to both of you from the get-go. You’re unlikely to remember every detail you saw during the session, so bring a notebook or phone to jot down anything useful you learn (if you want to take a picture, be polite and ask the presenter if they’re okay with that). In some disciplines, people print A4 summaries of their posters for people to take away, which is something you could consider. Posters give you a window into the latest research your peers are doing, sometimes long before things are published, so make the best of them!
One worry many of us share is that we feel intimidated to be surrounded by so many knowledgeable researchers and feel pressured to come up with relevant questions at every poster. A colleague confided in me that he has a list of questions in the back of his mind that are relevant for any research poster in our field (along the lines of: how does this change our understanding of [topic]? What is the translational benefit? Are you planning to expand your findings to other models? – I am sure there are similar questions in your field). Of course, your poster session experience will be much more valuable and productive if you can discuss research that is actually relevant to you and ask things you genuinely want to know, but it can help to equip yourself with a couple of these “safety questions” to feel more calm and confident that you’ll be fine even if you find yourself drawing a blank.
Remember we are trainees and everything we do is a learning experience! It is great to impress, but we should always aspire to learn, above all. Technically by theAwkwardYeti.com
Finally, let’s talk about alcohol. Poster sessions are often held at the end of the afternoon with drinks and nibbles under the magic conference term “Networking Session”. After a long day of presentations everyone is thirsty and hungry, there’s never enough nibbles, and free booze seems to release something in researchers normally reserved for obscure office Christmas parties. Have as much fun as possible (these hungry, boozy sessions can be great bonding experiences!), but always remember that this is still a work event and the people around you are your future colleagues, bosses, and paper reviewers.
I hope this way useful – stay tuned for part three in the Conference Success Series where I’ll explore strategies to maximise the benefits of conference attendance! In the meantime, if you have any tips & tricks of your own to share: let us know in the comments or over on Twitter (@UofG_PGRBlog)!