Conference posters: Less is more!

For some it’s the highlight of a conference, for others it’s a dull chore – the poster session. Unfortunately giving a poster presentation at a conference sometimes comes with the stigma of not making the cut for the oral presentation sessions. But conferences aren’t just about sharing your work; they are about making career forming connections with your peers and seniors. And for someone like me who is terrified by the mere thought of trying to make small talk with strangers over the tea and coffee table, the poster sessions are a perfect opportunity to just walk up to someone and say ‘hey, talk to me!’.

If you have a poster session coming up think about how you can make the best impression, and what’s the best way to get people talking about you and your work. A few years back I won the first place prize out of the several hundred poster presentations at the International Behavioural Ecology Congress in Lund, Sweden. Since then I’m often asked for tips on making poster presentations so I thought I would share some of the philosophy behind the creation of this poster and some of the feedback I received after presenting it.

Here is the poster and the research it refers to can be found openly available here.

ISBEposter

The golden rule: Less is more

The worst possible poster is one that consists of huge blocks of text. If I can’t understand what your poster is about with a cursory glance I’m probably not going to bother reading it. The most common feedback I had on this poster came from people simply saying ‘I love it, I don’t have to read anything’. If your posters have a series of paragraphs on it, either go through and stream line it as much as you can, or completely rethink how you approach your paper. The fundamental purpose of research is to answer a question. This poster takes that fundamental idea to an extreme by simply having two sentences, a question and an answer.

It may feel a little weird to streamline your story so much, after all it usually represents several years of hard work. But as I will explain a little bit further on, the poster session isn’t just about the poster, its about you. You have the opportunity to stand next to it and talk as much as you like. Make your poster as succinct and direct as possible, if anyone wants further details they can ask you as many questions as they like.

Another cliché that works: A picture says a thousand words.

A huge contributor to the success of this poster is the big picture in the middle of it. I could have written a paragraph of information about mimicry theory, deception, sensory ecology and what sort of animal the orchid mantis is. But the big picture in the middle does all that for me. People can simply look at the picture and immediately understand that we have a predatory insect that looks like a flower. I then ask the question of whether by looking this way it deceives pollinators. A picture of an orchid mantis devouring a bee immediately answers that question without needing to explain it in words. The single (and simple) graph helps enforce the main finding of the paper, which was that orchid mantises can attract even more pollinators than flowers.

Think of what images you can use and let your pictures do the talking. Get rid of those unsightly blocks of text and make everything as self explanatory as possible. Hopefully you will find more people reacting positively to your succinct and well-designed poster. It will take some creative thinking but that’s the fun part right?

A poster is not a paper

There is an out dated perception that posters have to resemble truncated papers with introduction, methods, results and discussion sections. I have even seen posters with the whole bottom half taken up by references, footnotes and funding acknowledgements. I was horrified to hear that there are some conferences that have strict requirements that posters must adhere to manuscript formats and even specify font types and styles. If you are attending one of these conferences you have my deepest condolences. Best hit the sauce and make the best of it.

For most of the conferences I have been to the extent of poster requirements is their dimensions, so the design is a limitless playground for you to work with. Forget about your manuscript and think about your story. What is the story you want to tell and what visual aids do you need to tell it? Go bananas, get creative, and remember your poster is just a tool to help tell your story.

It’s all about you.

Maybe I am just getting old and grumpy but I have stopped reading posters all together during conference sessions. I simply walk up to the person standing next to it and say ‘what’s the go smarty pants?’ Having someone talk me through their research and tell me what they did is so much more engaging and makes the poster sessions so much more fun than even the most well organised symposium, and definitely more fun than a plenary session.

Remember that a poster session is your opportunity to sell yourself as a professional. The poster is simply a tool for you to help engage with your audience. If someone is reading your poster, don’t stand there expectantly staring at them waiting for them to ask a question. It makes you look creepy and it makes them very uncomfortable. Don’t let them read it, interrupt and ask them if they’re would like to hear your story. Be prepared to do a hell of a lot of talking and make sure you have fun.

Once you are busy telling your story the poster is just there to give you something to point at. As said above think about what visual aids you need to tell your story – a particular graph you are likely to refer to, or a photo of your plant/animal/fungus/study site/whatever. Forget everything you’re used to seeing on posters, like references, acknowledgements and methods sections, and make your poster a story telling tool.

Think outside the poster

Your poster presentation doesn’t have to end at the poster. I decided to stick in a QR code that led people to this very website. It even managed to draw in a few people who simply wanted to know what the strange black and white box was and how it works. Others may simply put up a website link or recommended search terms. Now that QR codes are out of fashion I cant wait to see poster designers start using augmented reality apps to help their stories jump off the page.

Don’t forget you can also bring a heap of other story telling tools with you. I went a bit overboard with this particular poster session and brought an iPad loaded up with extra figures, pictures and videos so that I could present my entire PhD thesis if anyone cared to ask. I’ve seen people brandishing stuffed animals, preserved specimens, even bags of lollies to lure in passers by. If nothing else it could be a nice ice-breaker, so have as much fun with your supplementary materials as you are comfortable. Feel free to bring a stack of business cards and hand them out like its Christmas because this is your time to shine!

If you have seen some other great posters or poster techniques I would love to hear about them. If you have any other great tips share them here, or if these techniques have worked for you I would love to hear about it! Enjoy your poster session, because it is what you chose to make it. So make it kick ass!

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9 thoughts on “Conference posters: Less is more!

    1. Oooh I forgot I had an iPad too, I’ll add it to the post:-) I also saw a poster once that had a little box with joke on it. You had to ask the presenter for the punchline:-) I cant remember the joke though 😦

    2. I once added a hardcover copy of my thesis to my poster. Within the same afternoon, it was badly torn off the poster: no thesis, and a hole in the poster.

      So far for trying to stand out (well, I still assume it was a hardcore fan 😉 ).

      Cannot imagine what would happen to the iPad.

      But I like your idea of more daring posters. Your example of the orchid mantis poster is really inspiring! Thanks!

      1. Thank you! And yes I would definitely take having my thesis stolen as a compliment 🙂 I remember just before the age of iPads seeing a prominent orthopterist wiring up a chunky little LCD screen to hang off the top of his poster, with some sort of enormous battery pack. It showed videos of crickets walking around. It was a whole lot of effort for very little pay off.

        A daring poster is a good way to put it, after all if you’re nestled in amongst a room of hundreds of other posters, standing out from the crowd it a difficult but necessary thing to do.

  1. Great poster, great advice, and great picture!

    Since I study bird song I’ve put small push button sound players (like those used in greeting cards) behind “Press Here for ____ ” targets on posters. The buttons I got were by Invite by Voice (http://www.invitebyvoice.com/index.php/recordable-musical-sound-chip-module/push-button-sound-module.html) and run pretty cheap at like $7 a pop. They are programmable by USB and you can rewrite what is on them, so they are reusable if you change what you want to play. Each unit has at least a minute of space (depends on quality of your recording), the batteries are replaceable, and each has its own little speaker. I’ve used the two I have through two three-day conferences and they haven’t run out of juice. The only issue is that sound quality degrades rapidly above 7.0 kHz and I don’t think it could handle sounds as high as 10.0 kHz, so usage might be limited if your study species makes very high-pitched sounds.

    Another trend that I’m curious about is printing posters on no-wrinkle fabric for ease of travel. A number of friends of mine have done it and raved about it.

  2. Wow! Sound buttons sound amazing! Literally and figuratively!

    I started using fabric and I’ll never go back, especially if I am flying to the other side of the planet I don’t want to be lugging around a poster tube. They look just as good and are much more convenient. And when the conference is finished you can wear it as a cape 🙂

  3. Nice, clear design, that does what it would have said on the box … were there a box. Better than some of the advertising proofs from my employer’s supposed media & communication professionals, which often has significant design gaffes.

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