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Scientific Communication: Presenting a Poster
Elizabeth Halliday

Part I – The Process

Courtesy of Boston College

My rite of passage into the world of scientific communication came via the elementary school science fair, and involved a rainbow of construction paper, a three-part poster board and copious amounts of school glue. This artistic outflow inevitably occurred, to the dismay of my parents, the night before the science fair.

Fast-forward a decade – and here I am, once again preparing. Despite having started early, the deadline is already looming large! This month I will be presenting my first poster at a professional conference. Mercifully there is no glue involved, and this project is research, not homework, but some things never change.

In principle, the poster session is similar to a science fair. Many posters are exhibited together while viewers wander through them, stopping to read posters that catch their eye. Authors are asked to stand by at certain hours to present their work and answer questions. For the rest of the day, the poster stands alone and must speak for itself.

Making a board speak isn’t easy. Space is at a premium, so text and graphics must be selected carefully. A poster should be compelling enough to interest the viewer, clearly direct the viewer through your work, and hit the overall message home.

Posters have become a very common way, especially for young scientists, to present information to the scientific community. So, how do you go about making a poster?

Plan, Plan, Plan

Give yourself plenty of time. Start by asking yourself questions. What was the objective of the investigation? What did you find out? What is the main point that you want to convey? The answers to these questions, hopefully, seem really obvious to you; make sure you can make them just as obvious to the viewer. In the planning stage, go ahead and brainstorm about your research so that none of the important points or connections get overlooked. Think about your abstract. What are the most important points you want to share and elaborate upon?

Michael Troxel, an undergraduate from the University of Oklahoma, gave his first poster presentation at the January 2006 meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Prior to making his poster, he had the draft of a paper written and was able to use that as a springboard for his poster.

“Come up with figures that tell the story for you,” Troxel advises. “Pictures are the key to a good poster. Most people won’t even read what you write if the pictures don’t grab their attention. Then, you consider how you’re going to squeeze what feels like a novel into the remaining couple pages worth of space.”

I had to come up with all new graphics for my poster. I originally presented this research with PowerPoint, but then I had the luxury of fifteen slides with all sorts of tables and charts. For my poster, I needed a few uncluttered, clear graphics to contrast and summarize my results.

Matthew Kornis, an undergraduate at Lawrence, pointed out, “anyone can turn their research into a poster, but to make a great poster it should be organized like a painting.” Kornis kept this in mind as he designed his poster on alewife abundance for the 2006 Ocean Sciences Meeting. An introductory picture of the alewife (a type of fish) subtly pointed to his results. These methods of guiding a reader are, “kind of like a flow chart, but subtle.” Another way to help readers follow the poster, he noted, is to “group chunks of the project in boxes or bubbles to add another dimension of organization.”

What information should be included on a poster?

Catchy is nice, but the number one priority is clarity. Everyone needs to know what this poster is about.

This is a burning question! Or is it? It is your responsibility to interest the viewer in the issue, as well as the context of the issue.

Materials and Methods
Keep it short. Viewers should come away from this section familiar with the experimental methods and setup, in order to understand the results.

Mention that your experiment worked (“X% of the popcorn popped) and go on to present your data via text and engaging figures. This should be the largest part of your poster and should stand on its own, should viewers choose to read only this.

Was your hypothesis supported? What is the relevance of all the information you just led your viewer through? Hit the message home. When your results present new directions for future work, discuss that here.

Literature Cited
Follow standard format. It is crucial to be accurate; remember, if you forget to cite someone, he or she just might show up at your poster and call you out on it.

Keep this professional. Thank people who have specifically helped you (loan of equipment or assistance in the lab, for example) and the organizations that have provided funding. This is not the Oscars; your favorite breakfast cereal, no matter how inspiring, does not belong here.

People should be able to read your whole poster in about 10 minutes. Stick to Arial or Times New Roman, which are the easiest fonts to read. A manuscript pasted on a board is not a compelling poster.

Poster Specifics

Most posters are now designed with PowerPoint, which allows exploration of layout within arbitrary size constraints. Double-check size limits on the poster. As tempting as it is to try to cram everything into the board, design a layout that isn’t cluttered. A little space goes a long way towards readability.

Troxel’s advice on poster flow? “Use standard, left-right up-down direction of flow, keep the images/tables spread out, and keep the text BIG … 30 points at a minimum. If you can’t read from a meter away, up the font. People will thank you either 1) because they can read it without getting close enough to have to say anything or 2) so they can read it if your poster is popular and there are a lot of people.”

Ready, Set, Go

Some more advice before you head off to that conference with your poster? “Read, read, read,” Michael recommends. “There are tons of information about poster making… look at past posters, read abstracts, read tips and guides. This was my first poster, and those kinds of things were invaluable, since my advisor had no suggestions for posters. Also, make friends with a graduate student who both has done posters and knows how to work the big printer at your school.”

Some websites that were of great assistance to me are:
- “Advice on designing scientific posters” by Collin Purrington of Swarthmore College
- “Poster Presentation of Research Work” courtesy of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials department at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

A book that gives terrific general guidance and is a useful reference for making posters, presentations and papers, is Doing Science, by Ivan Valiela.

Once you have what you think is the final draft of your poster, send a copy to friends and mentors for review. Ask them to be brutally honest. Are there things that should be cut? Is anything confusing? Are there typos? Are the colors awful? Be critical, because you can count on a critical audience at any scientific conference.

The Presentation

Poster sessions at a scientific conference can be both exciting and terrifying for a first-time presenter. Hundreds of scientists mill about, and they all seem to know each other. You – part of the mass toting posters around – tack your poster up in its designated spot. As you read the name tags of passersby you might catch the author of your favorite dog-eared textbook, or the person whose research you’ve referenced ten times in your paper.

Knowing – or not knowing – the people approaching your poster can be intimidating.

“Remember that you are the expert,” advises Matt Kornis. “People with a great deal more experience will be asking questions, not to test you, but (out of) genuine interest. It is important to know the project so that you can field questions without losing confidence.”

Without fail, experienced poster presenters repeated this mantra: know your work, inside and out, forward and backward.

You Can Walk the Walk, but Can You Talk the Talk?

“Presenting a poster involves a lot of talking,” Michael Troxel said via email. “Many people will be more interested to hear you explain the poster than to read it. You should be able to explain the poster and any relevant details in five minutes or less, the shorter the better, to anyone who happens to come by.” The more comfortable you are with your research, the easier it is to explain it to viewers coming from diverse backgrounds.

How do you address both the expert and the layman? From the outset, Kornis prepares two talks.

“I have a two-minute summary ready to go for people who seem interested but not really into my research. These are the folks who stop for a little bit and then move on. I also have a more detailed version prepared, but I hardly ever use it. Usually I start with the short presentation and then expand if the interested party asks questions. Occasionally you will get someone who seems really interested and will start by asking you a question. When this happens I usually go into the detailed version.”

Ascertaining what your visitor is interested in influences the “detailed version” that you give them. One of the best parts of the poster presentation is the chance to engage your audience in conversation. For example – a scientist in the same field might want to know details about your methodology. A fellow undergrad may want to know how you came up with the research topic. Ideally, you both can learn from each other’s experiences.

Sarah Edwards, a geology undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out the presentation is more then just explanatory. If someone is hovering near your poster, say hello.

“One thing my boss told me is, 'advertise yourself and your science,' because some of this stuff gets so esoteric so fast that people need to be told, and need to see, that it is exciting and important,” Edwards said via email. For people who aren’t in your research niche, or even you discipline, highlight the broad implications that they can relate to.

Finally, don’t let nerves get the best of you. Enjoy the opportunity to socialize and network with people in your field.

Troxel said the AAS conference he attended was, “amazing.” He met many of the people whose papers he used in his own research, saw their personalities and even had the chance to defend his work to them.

“It is a wonderful experience.”