Justin L. Matthews
Justin L. Matthews
Justin L. Matthews Assistant Professor

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Congratulations! Your submission was accepted to a conference and you’re giving a poster presentation. Are you nervous? I’m here to tell you that designing a great poster is not difficult, but you should start the design process sooner rather than later. No doubt you’ve invested great energy in exploring the literature, crafting your research question, designing your study, and collecting and interpreting your data. Now you’re ready to share your findings. I want to encourage you to take this final step as seriously as you approached the initial ones. Successfully and effectively sharing your work is critical. Your work is meant to leave the lab-without dissemination, your research never really happened. So, how does one design an effective conference poster? Here are five things to remember when crafting an effective conference poster presentation.


1. Tell a coherent story


Think about the last poster session you attended. What did you enjoy? Was it the variety of the work being showcased? Was it the lively conversations between you and the presenters? What did you dislike? Were some of the presentations disorganized, difficult to read, understand, or follow? Think about how your audience will experience your work. Often, you only have about five minutes (or less) to relay your findings to someone. It is easier to do this when you have a well-organized, cohesive, and engaging story to tell. Start with a descriptive-but-specific title. People often decide to talk to you based on a combination of your title and your poster’s visual appearance; take care in crafting both. Once you have someone’s attention, invite them in to hear a summary of the work and tell them an organized and engaging story. First, share a little about what inspired your work. Then, relay your project’s main objective or research question. Next, tell them what you did to answer your question. Finally, tell them what you learned and why your results are important. Remember. you have only a few minutes to summarize months or years worth of work, so stay focused, organized, and on message.



2. Go beyond words


Effective posters use visual imagery to convey information. Remember, this thing you’re creating is a poster--a giant piece of paper that can include elements other than words. The visual appearance, in addition to your title, is what people will use to determine their interest. For the sake of your audience, use photos, figures, timelines, and graphs to tell your story. Most observers do not want to spend the majority of their time reading; they want to listen to you while looking at nice visual imagery. Allow the visually interesting parts of your poster to take center stage. Encourage your audience to gain insight into your work through imagery while you narrate their experience. Remember, for the most part, you will be right there next to your poster to guide your observer's experience.



3. Cater to your audience


Effectively communicating ideas is easier when you know your audience. Find out who will be attending your session. Will they be colleagues in your field, individuals from other fields, or something in between, maybe even (gasp) members of the public? Is your venue interdisciplinary or field-specific (e.g. the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Conference on Sea Otter Grooming Behavior, or a small department colloquium)? People outside your field might need help seeing the bigger picture or understanding the value of your findings. Think about how your audience will experience your message, understand content, and relate. If your audience consists primarily of people from your immediate field, you might be able to get away with certain acronyms or skimp on theoretical or methodological detail. However, if your audience includes people who are not familiar with your terminology, theories, or method, you need to customize your message accordingly. The last thing you want is an observer who is lost or frustrated.



4. Get to the point


Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and you just wanted it to be over? Chances are, you have. Remember this when designing your poster. Don’t frustrate your audience with an overly lengthy presentation (tip: keep your poster word count below 600). Large conference sessions can include hundreds of posters and the people you’re talking to probably want to see a number of them. Prepare to effectively relay the details of your work in about five minutes. This gives you enough time to lay the groundwork for your research, talk about what you did, discuss what you found, and close with why your results are important. If someone wants to spend an extended amount of time at your poster, that’s great! However, allow them to make that decision individually.



5. Show that you care


When you present at a conference session, your presentation is a direct representation of you, your co-authors, your lab, and your institution. Remember this when crafting your presentation. You want your poster to be impressive. In addition to being a forum for discussing research, conference sessions are social gatherings where professional connections are often made. Remember, you may meet your future graduate school advisor, future post-doc advisor, or future collaborators/co-workers. To this end, create a poster that shows you care about quality. Remember, you and your behavior during the poster session are included in this category. Be respectful and kind. Take pride in your presentation and your work. Last, but definitely not least, please remember to shower.



Now that you have a handle on these five broad poster design guidelines, visit my website for a more in depth look at the poster design process, including basic tips and tricks (e.g. fonts, colors, elements, sections, etc.) as well as ready-made poster templates to make the first step in designing your poster that much easier. Good luck!



Image credit: American Geophysical Union