A lot is written about the two major forms of scientific communication, papers and conference talks, but these days most results are first communicated via poster presentations.

I find it very difficult to read and to present posters but I think they are a good idea. So, I have worked hard to be better. I think my problem was that initially I crafted my posters as if they were scientific papers. They have an introduction, a results section with about four figures, perhaps showing methods in the figure legends, and then a discussion and a few references. I pity the poor conference attendees who attempted to navigate through my posters – it is hard enough to read a scientific paper at the best of times (when one is locked in a study with silence and a notepad), it becomes nearly impossible when one is in a crowded poster room, with the main author watching, and other people queuing up to see the results.

A poster should not be like a paper. For a few of your audience it could be – one or two people, who are absolutely in your sub-field of research, may actually photograph your poster and go away to digest it in depth later. But again, this provides reasons not to make your poster like a paper – particularly if you are still forming the story and are not yet ready to go to press.

Unlike a paper, a poster is not designed to convince three expert anonymous referees. At this early stage one is not presenting a case for the prosecution to a sceptical jury, or aiming to present an irrefutable and water-tight case – one is just hoping to start a conversation about the science. The posters I have enjoyed reading most are little more than a set of talking points to facilitate interactions with the author, who will be standing in front of their poster.

So where do I now start when creating a poster?

First I aim for a title that will be of broad interest. I consider who is at the conference. If I have invented a new method, or just improved or used a new method, I think about mentioning that, since most people are interested in learning about methods. Otherwise I do my best to use well-recognised words (even buzzwords) rather than specific language, and I sometimes use the trick of throwing in a colon in the title, like – “Making a poster interesting: even if it is related to a dry technique for measuring DNA-binding affinities.”

Sometimes I include a photo of myself (perhaps with other members of lab, or of my city) alongside the title, and I show the affiliation of all authors clearly – personally I am often drawn to read posters which mention people I know or departments I have visited. It is often easier to begin a chat by talking about people and places rather than ideas. Referring to mutual friends can be a very good way to begin a conversation.

Then I set myself a stretch goal – I aim to limit the poster to 250 words. I use a big font. I try not worry that people will think I have not got enough results or have not done enough real science, or if I do, I squeeze in some fine print in the form of figure legends, but I do not expect many people to read those.

Most importantly I set up a path through the poster. Rather than introduction, methods, results, discussion etc, I just say one, two, three, four, and then five. I make sure that readers can navigate through the full story from a distance and that there is a proper narrative – beginning, middle, end – and a clear path for people to follow. I try to set up a question, the means of answering it, and either the answer, or some sort of a cliff-hanger ending.

Lodging a data figure or other illustration near each number and ensuring that people can understand the figures without reading the figure legends, and preferably without reading anything, helps people sail through the poster. Starting with a “graphical abstract” that sums up the work, or finishing with a cartoon model that covers the story can also be helpful.

I try to avoid too many technical details and I do not show tables with text because I find it difficult to read tables. Sometimes I say “details available on request” in some of the figure legends (if I have figure legends), and this sometimes helps prompt a conversation. I remember that I am not convincing reviewers or editors here. The science should be accurate and should never misrepresent things or omit data that conflicts with the hypothesis, but I do not have to provide all the details required to allow other scientists to repeat the results in a poster because I am there to answer questions.

The most important thing is to be there to answer questions. This can be tricky. Sometimes poster sessions go for too long and it is uncomfortable to stand by a poster when interest is subsiding or before anyone has yet turned up (or if no one seems interested). One answer here is to gauge the interest and then put up a post-it note (perhaps near your photo on the title line) saying you will be there from time x to y to answer questions. If the poster session is not well-attended then I set a short time period near the beginning, if the place is buzzing then one can dispense with this step anyway.

There is a fine line between pouncing on passers-by and selling the poster, and modestly holding back and shyly avoiding connecting with potentially interested researchers. Most people handle this OK and passers-by typically signal they are interested by reading the first few lines then looking directly at you standing by your poster – under your photo. This is when most presenters quietly say “would you like me to take you through my poster” to the relief of everyone, because most people prefer to have a guided tour than to slog through even 250 words of text.

Usually poster sessions are good fun. The expectations for posters – as opposed to papers in top journals or even talks at major conferences – are never impossibly high. The posters are just there to ensure that everyone has a chance to present results that may be interesting. Many people will not yet have got their most interesting results but will just be communicating a topic for study and a strategy – no one really minds that. Most people are not looking for the answer to the meaning of life when they come up to read a poster, they’re just hoping for a pleasant conversation about science.

Personally I prefer short talks to posters and the combination of the two works well. There may be other great ways of ensuring everyone gets a chance to share their results but until then I think posters are here to say so it is best to prepare carefully and enjoy the experience.

Merlin Crossley is DVC A  at UNSW. He writes at the Crossley Lab


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