Make your title stand out. The title of your poster is the first thing people notice, and it can either draw visitors in or give them cause to keep walking. Make sure your title is easily visible by making it large enough that people can read it from a few feet away. I use a font size of 88 in my posters, and even that is on the small end of what I’m comfortable with. You can also make your title stand out from the rest of your poster by making the background behind your title a different color than the background of the rest of your poster.
Use color theory to guide your design. This is a tip from my undergraduate mentor, who had a background in interior design, if I recall correctly. Websites like this one let you select colors that match well and create visually appealing designs. If you don’t want to go to the effort of creating a harmonious Powerpoint palette, a simple pop of color will usually help people notice your poster. Maybe the text behind your title is bright blue, which is one of your university’s colors. (Go Nittany Lions!) That said, use color judiciously. A poster consisting completely of primary colors is harsh, and a light text on a dark background can be difficult to read. One last note on color: Don’t put red and green together in text or on a figure in case you have colorblind viewers.
Add a creative visual component to your poster to draw people in. Something that indicates your unique research topic and invites a closer inspection would be perfect. I passed a poster on incarcerated women at SRCD, and the person who designed it put two pie charts inside of an image of handcuffs. I thought it was very clever; it made me stop at the poster, invited me to examine the pie charts, and helped me remember the topic of the poster later. Not everyone will have a research topic with a great visual symbol. As a sex researcher, I’m not sure anybody wants to see photos related to my research—kissy lips would be cheesy, almost anything else would be inappropriate.
Limit the text on your poster. Nobody actually wants to stand there and read a thorough literature review about cross-cultural performance on the Stroop task for five minutes. The person visiting your poster is probably hungry, her feet hurt, and she just wants to know the important things about your research. So, only include the specific information that is crucial to a reader’s understanding of your poster.
Saying that your poster shouldn’t contain too much text is much easier than actually cutting back the text on your poster. I have struggled with this issue since the beginning of my research career. I shared a poster with my lab last fall, hoping to receive feedback. When it was time to discuss my poster, everyone became very quiet. A sigh finally broke the silence, followed by, “There’s just way too much text on this poster.” Someone enthusiastically agreed, “Yes, way too much.” Although I was grateful for my colleagues’ frank responses, it was a rough moment for me. I had spent a significant amount of time writing my poster, and I felt like I had already cut so much text out of it! But I learned three important lessons from that slightly traumatic incident. First, that I need to use less text. (And I have improved substantially.) Second, that people don’t see what you’ve already cut, they only see the abundance of text that is still on the poster. Third, that people will dismiss your work almost instantly if you overwhelm them with text. Here are a few helpful hints for scaling back:
- Don’t describe research that is not evaluated in your poster. I saw a few posters recently that described a larger study, followed by, (not in this poster). That seemed silly to me. Every word on a poster is valuable, and the space used to describe research you won’t present could have been used for something more relevant. If it’s not in the poster, don’t write about it.
- Simplify your language. Go through your poster sentence by sentence. Look for unnecessary clauses, conjunctions, and prepositions. The sentence, “The purpose of the present research was to examine the association between sexual initiation and depression, and to provide a new perspective on this association by accounting for the role of peer status,” is not an efficient use of space. Try, as an alternative, “Purpose: To examine the association of sexual initiation with depression, controlling for peer status.”
- Using bullet points can help you cut down your sentence length. Bullet points make it okay not to use full sentences, and then you can drop even more text. Using bullet points also helps you organize the thoughts presented in your poster in a way that is easily understood.
- Check for repetition. For example, are you repeating statistics in your results section that are included in a table? The table alone will suffice; I don’t need to see your p-values more than once. Do you have two consecutive sentences that make very similar points? Drop one of them or consolidate them.
- If you have to use a text size smaller than 36 for the bulk of your poster, you may have too much text. Consider cutting back.
Highlight important information. Making important information bold, or changing the color associated with it, can help readers pick out things they’re looking for. In a table, highlighting key variables and significant coefficients can help readers navigate the sea of numbers. If your results section corresponds to a table or figure, make sure the reader can easily connect the results to the figure.
Use visuals wherever possible to describe your research. If you have the option to describe your regression results with a figure, do it! Can you describe the race/ethnicity distribution of your participants with a pie chart? Go for it! Adding visual components to your poster breaks up the monotony of text, and these figures easy to absorb and interpret. Visual components also attract people to your poster. In poster sessions, people are surrounded by words, so the three sentences in your results section are nothing special. Your graph showing the wicked high levels of self-esteem in your intervention vs control groups is much more eye-catching.
Sometimes posters look fine from a distance, but up close, subtle flaws in the poster content and design suddenly appear. These flaws can be distracting for detail-oriented people like me, and they make it seem that you were careless in creating your poster. Before you send your poster to the printer, run through this technical checklist to make sure your poster doesn’t emerge full of typos:
- Is your language consistent throughout the poster? Or are you writing “sexual initiation” half of the time and “sexual debut” the other half?
- Are there typos in your poster? Looking for typos in a poster is challenging because, when viewing your Powerpoint document on a computer screen, you can either see the whole poster and have tiny text, or have a small section of readable text. To get around this conundrum, copy all the text in your text boxes and paste it into Word. Bam! Easy-to-read, easy-to-correct text.
- The copy-paste trick doesn’t work as well with figures and tables. Check them carefully, as well. Look for whether your numbers make sense—are you reporting a t-score of 0.21 as significant? Are you predicting a value of 7 on a scale that goes from 1-3? Check the formatting of your table, as well. Have you used decimal tabs so that the decimal points align all the way down a column? Is there a legend/key on your figures, and labels on the axes?
- Did you use the same typeface and font size throughout the text of your poster? Check the text on tables and figures as well, making sure they are consistent with the text boxes.
- Get your text boxes in order.
> Are they the same size? It’s okay to intentionally create different-sized text boxes, but it’s embarrassing to have one 12 x 12” and, just under it, one 12 x 12.58”. Use the formatting toolbar to precisely change the size of boxes.
> Are they aligned on the slide? Don’t trust your eyes for this one. Instead, Ctrl+click all of the text boxes you want to align and use the “align” button in the formatting toolbar. I swear, if I didn’t know this trick, every one of my text boxes would be 0.3 inches off.
- Print out your poster on a letter-sized sheet of paper, just to make sure nothing is obviously wrong that didn’t show up on your computer screen.
- Share your poster with colleagues and co-authors to get valuable feedback.
Be at your poster. At a recent conference, I overheard another graduate student say that she was abandoning her poster to do some leisure reading. That woman may have had an excellent excuse—maybe she was exhausted and on the verge of an emotional breakdown, or maybe she was three pages away from a major Game of Thrones death. But, barring emergencies like those, you really should stand near your poster for most of the session. If you want to make connections at a conference, you have to be physically present, at the very least. Abandoning your poster for a substantial length of time disappoints anyone who wanted to speak with you, and makes you look apathetic.
Prepare something to say when people approach you. My undergraduate mentor advised me to prepare an “elevator speech” about my research—what I would say if the person asked me about the poster in an elevator, and I only had the next 30-60 seconds to explain it.
Brainstorm questions that you might be asked, and have answers ready. Some common questions are, “What are your next directions?” and, “Can you talk me through this poster?” Questions might also focus on your measures, procedure, and statistical techniques, so know what you did. If it’s been a while since you ran the analyses, take a minute to brush up.
Be ready to follow up. Occasionally, people will ask for a copy of your poster. You can have letter-size handouts ready, or you can send it to them electronically. The poster pictured below, which was situated across from me at SRCD, had a great setup for encouraging people to get additional information. Note the handouts, a prepared piece of paper where visitors could leave contact information, an envelope to leave business cards, and an envelope with the researcher’s business cards to take. I was so impressed that I had to take a photo.