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New Jersey Chemistry Olympics

Tips for Effective Poster Presentations

K. Barbara Schowen University of Kansas

© American Chemical Society

 

Think back to the last poster session you attended. Which were the memo­rable posters? Which communicated their science the most successfully, and how? When asked these questions, most people will agree that effective posters clearly state the research problem and the conclusion reached; use a minimum of words and panels, a readable font, and clearly labeled graphs and diagrams; and look simple, neat, and pleasing to the eye. How to pre­pare such a poster is the subject of this section.

 A poster is one of two common methods used at meetings and confer­ences for communicating the results of recent scientific investigations. As with an oral slide presentation, a poster is expected to contain the informa­tion typical of scientific papers: background, purpose, methods, results, interpretation, and conclusions.

 In a poster, this information is customarily displayed in concise form with a minimum of text on a wall or easel-like apparatus. The space is usu­ally designated by number in accordance with a printed program, and the area at one's disposal is on average about 5-6 feet wide and 3-4 feet high.

 (ACS meetings generally provide space 6 feet wide and 4 feet high; 1 m X 1 m is common at international meetings.)

 The poster is commonly scheduled for viewing during a specified time period, and the presenter is expected to be available for questions and dis­cussion during a designated part of that time. The advantage and pleasure of poster presentation for many individuals is this opportunity for meaningful one-on-one dialogue with viewers of common scientific interests.

 How Does a Poster Differ from a Slide Talk?

A poster uses a very different mode of communication, has a different kind of audience, and induces a different type of discussion from those of a slide talk, and a poster can be appreciated long after its official use.

 A poster is alone in the world of scientific reporting in its minimal use of words, relying mainly on nonverbal visual means of communication. With a poster, any oral component is minimal and less structured and will depend on the nature of a viewer's questions and comments.

 The attendees at a talk constitute a "captive" audience. The attendees at a poster session, on the other hand, are more fluid and varied. They may happen on your poster more or less by accident, or they may have specifi­cally sought it out. They may glance at your poster cursorily and move on, or they may pore over each panel and stay for an extended discussion. Most will fall somewhere between these extremes.

Time for questioning at a talk is often limited and necessarily involves (at least passively) the entire group. With a poster the possibility exists for more extensive, lively, and individual contact with genuinely interested people.

 A poster, furthermore, because it is tangible, can later be put on dis­play-for example, at the home institution.

 When Is a Poster Most Appropriate?

Talks and posters lend themselves to different kinds of scientific communi­cating. A poster is ideal for reporting a contained body of work, a single experiment (or related set of experiments), or something with a straight­forward question posed and a clear and clean-cut conclusion. An oral pre­sentation, on the other hand, is much better suited for instruction, persua­sion, development of arguments, and evaluation (of conflicting data or theories, for example), for critical literature review, or for reporting on a number of loosely related experiments. None of these activities works well in a poster format. When given a choice, bear in mind what posters can and cannot do well, and choose accordingly.

 Designing the Poster: Concept, Style, and Tone

Before buying poster paper and going to the word processor, think back on poster sessions you have attended. If possible, attend one or two again, look at samples that may be on display at your, institution, and evaluate what works. Your goal in this survey is not to critique the scientific content or the superficial impact of the presentation, but to see (1) which posters allow you to get the most information plus a notable message in the most efficient and straightforward manner and (2) which ones catch your eye and make you stop to read more closely. These-the simultaneously effective and pleasing posters-are your models.

 Creativity Versus Communication

There are, of course, many possible physical designs for an effective poster. Devising one (if you do not have the services of a professional graphic arts facility) can be a pleasurable creative activity and a welcome change in rou­tine, especially for those who have an eye for color and design as well as the artistic ability and time to execute their visions. Most of us, however, have neither the time nor the talent for such indulgence and should repress over ambitious creative urges in favor of simplicity. Strike a balance, keep things simple, and let the message through.

 What you want is a good-looking poster-one that looks as though you care about presenting your work and one that will entice a viewer to stop and look-but above all one that promulgates your scientific message. The message should leap to the eye and be remembered, not the fact that you have pasted your information on purple poster board at an unusual angle.

 Know Your Audience

Poster sessions fall into two main types: those at large meetings and those at small special-interest conferences. The poster-session audience at a large meeting will not necessarily be as well versed in the area of your poster as the audience at a smaller meeting. Give some thought to this dif­ference, therefore, when planning the introduction, background, and sig­nificance sections of your poster. For example, it may be more important to include a detailed review of the reaction catalyzed by a particular enzyme and its generally accepted mechanism in a general session of a large meeting than it would be at a conference devoted to enzyme mecha­nisms and attended only by specialists in that area. Nevertheless, a com­mon error is to overestimate the viewers' familiarity with your subject. It is never a mistake to introduce your material assuming no background knowledge.

 Overall Considerations

Four things need to be considered-often simultaneously-in designing a successful poster:

  1. the physical aspects (mechanics of display and general appearance);
  2. the scientific message and how best to communicate it;
  3. the details of the presentation (arrangement, layout, and size) of this message (be it textual, graphical, or pictorial) on individual poster panels; and
  4. the arrangement of the individual panels with respect to one anoth­er and the space provided.

 Designing the Physical Display: Concept and Mechanics

The first step always is to find out the dimensions of the space allotted to you.

 Basic Recipe

Here is a simple recipe for a bare-bones, no-frills, simple, attractive, effec­tive, easy-to-put-together, easy-to-transport, and easy-to-hang generic poster. Create a title-author panel as described in the next section. Then, print what you want to say (or show) in large format on letter-size paper, number each sheet, and then affix each sheet to a slightly larger sheet of col­ored construction paper. Arrange these panels in logical, sequential order at eye level in the space provided. Construction paper has the advantage over poster board because it weighs less and is easier to push thumbtacks through; the rigidity of the heavier poster board, however, results in a stur­dier, more permanent finished product. (ACS meeting guidelines expressly advise against using heavy stock because of mounting difficulty.) The choice of color is certainly up to you, but some things work better than others. In general, using one color throughout gives a cleaner and more unified look to the display, and darker colors often look better than pale or "fluorescent" tones. Cut the paper or board and attach the printed sheets so that every­thing is straight. It sometimes is nice to have varying sizes of paper, but keep in mind that anything larger than letter size may be harder to transport and may get damaged.

 Something To Catch the Eye

The basic recipe is too bland and boring? In that case, you can allow a bit of creative free rein and think of ways to personalize or "spice up" the poster. Some effective touches are a molecular model glued onto a colored piece of paper, a photo of your apparatus or of computer-generated models or graph­ics, an actual piece of equipment, or a vial of a brightly colored or crystalline compound. One of these accessories per poster is probably sufficient.

 The Title-Author Panel

This panel, of course, is a must. It is customary to make a banner that fits across the top of your assigned space. The heading should contain the title, authors, and affiliations, usually one line for each, for example:

 THE STEREOCHEMISTRY OF THIOLATES

Michael F. Houk, Dale A. Johnson, and Andrew R. Marcos

Department of Chemistry, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627

 Be sure that all agrees with the printed program. The lettering should be large enough to be read from across a room. Letters for the title should be at least 1.5 in. (3.8 cm) high boldface type; letters for the authors and affiliations can be somewhat smaller.

 Banners are generally the most variable and creative elements in post­ers, but they can be time-consuming to prepare. Many organizations have good software available for landscape printing onto continuous sheets of computer paper; sometimes splicing of smaller sheets of printed paper works; and, as a last resort, so does hand lettering on a long strip of paper. Do not hesitate to consult experienced poster presenters at your institution for tips. Also, many copy centers are well set up and willing to help with such projects, by blowing up to specified size a smaller strip of paper con­taining the desired text, for example. You may wish to incorporate your institution's logo or colors.

 The Scientific Message: Getting the Story Out

Operate on the assumption that, given the usual number of posters and the time allotted per session, a person will seldom have more than five minutes to devote to your poster. Then design the reading component of your poster such that, on average, the gist of each panel can be understood and appreci­ated in less than a minute. This step takes some care and forethought; a poster will not work if you simply write a report, print it, tape it up, and hope that someone will take the time to go through it. Here, then, are some general considerations when planning for each component of a typical poster with sections for background, purpose, experimental or theoretical  methods, results, interpretation, and conclusion.

 Background and Introduction

As with any scientific communication, providing the context for the results to be reported is of paramount importance and may determine whether the reader will appreciate the rest of the report. It will be most effective if the introduction can be summarized in one paragraph or less and printed with a large font on no more than a single sheet of paper. Leading references can be included.

 Purpose or Statement of Problem

In general, the objective of a particular investigation of the sort presented in a poster can be expressed in one or two succinct sentences. Again, these can be printed in large type on a sheet of paper. Ideally, and if possible, express this "statement" as a single question-for example, "Given that the ' ~C-isotope effect for nonenzymic decarboxylation of CH3C0-COOH is 5% (1.05), does decarboxylation, product release, or both limit the rate of pyruvate decarboxylase action with saturating pyruvate at 25 °C and pH 6?"

 Experimental or Theoretical Approach

Here there is a great deal of variability, and your own situation will deter­mine how much is needed and what detail is warranted. The experimental method may be a major, or even the main, point of the poster and require some elaboration of procedure, schematics of the apparatus, and so forth. Absolutely to be avoided, however, is a report of the type that would go in the experimental section of a formal paper, dissertation, or report. Use bulleted lists of procedures; sketches, figures, diagrams, or photos of equip­ment; and a listing of conditions. Essentials should be given, but not detail.

 Data and Results

The cardinal rule for effective presentation of experimental data in posters does not really differ from that for preparing slides or overhead transparen­cies for a talk: keep the information per panel to a minimum and make it easy to absorb at a glance. For example, graphical presentation of numerical data is generally more effective than tabulation (be sure the axes are clearly labeled); give structures of compounds rather than names wherever possible; and label key spectral and chromatographic peaks. Be sure that each fig­ure, graph, or spectrum is completely labeled so that it can stand on its own and not require you to interpret it.

 Interpretation

Summarize as much as possible. Avoid complicated prose and long para­graphs. Use short numbered or bulleted phrases whenever possible.

 Conclusion and "Take-Home Message"

This is probably the most important part of your poster, so be sure it is short, pithy, and attractive to the eye. Two sentences is the recommended maximum. Ideally, the conclusion will be the answer to the question posed at the outset. For example, "The observed 13C-isotope effect is 2.5%. Decarboxylation is thus 50% rate-limiting, and product release is also 50% rate-limiting, both steps occurring at equal rates." The conclusion should not be a simple summary.

 Further Plans

Consider including next steps if you plan to continue work in the area. These plans may be outlined in a short numbered list or, if succinct, be made a part of the conclusion: "Compound 8 was successfully synthesized in five steps in 35% overall yield. Its activity as a cholinesterase inhibitor is under investigation, and samples have been submitted to the National Cancer Center for screening."

 Acknowledgments

It is proper to acknowledge funding sources, individuals, facilities, and so on as appropriate. A small, separate panel near the end is fine for this purpose.

 Designing the Individual Panels: Simple, Legible, and Complete

The overall challenge is to convey all information concisely. I have seen very effective posters that consisted of only four panels: introduction and pur­pose, experimental method, results, and conclusion. The style of lettering, spacing, placement on the page, and so forth are a matter of individual discre­tion. An essential consideration, however, is legibility. The most important rule is to choose fonts and construct graphs and other art such that the entire poster can be read from a distance of at least 3 ft (1 m), preferably 4 ft.

 Type and figures should be balanced over the entire poster as much as possible to avoid distraction; that is, font size and style should be uniform, and figures should be of similar size. Type with letters that are 3/8 in. high (e.g., Times New Roman 50-point boldface font) is recommended. The size of Times New Roman 24-point boldface should be considered an absolute minimum for the text. Headings should be larger type than the text, bold­face, on fines by themselves, and have blank space above and below them.

 Avoid, under all circumstances, panels that consist of a sheet of paper filled with normal-size (10- or 12-point) typed text and material that reads as if taken from a formal paper, progress report, or grant application. No one will have time to read and do justice to such documents in the time available. A poster is not a journal paper.

 Designing the Overall Layout: Clean and Logical

While you are deciding on the scientific content and how it will appear on the individual panels, give thought to the overall appearance and layout of your poster, and the placement of the individual panels with respect to each other and within the assigned space. The first consideration is the logical flow of your panels. Most poster readers will look for the beginning at the top left-hand corner. You will need to guide them from there on, even though each sheet should be numbered. Are the panels to be read in hori­zontal rows from left to right or in vertical columns from top to bottom? The decision is dictated by the shape and number of your individual panels and by the dimensions of your space. Poster areas that are wider than they are high lend themselves to the horizontal layout and vice versa. The viewer's eye can be directed by means of numbered panels (preferable), arrows, red thread, or appropriate headings, but in all cases the direction should be very clear. Most often, the conclusion is somewhere on the right.

 Another consideration is placement of the panels with respect to the floor. Keep in mind that it is very difficult for people to comfortably read material that is much above eye level or below hip level. The best way to solve this problem is to keep the number of panels to a minimum and to place them at a convenient average height. This generally means that the top of the highest panel (not counting title banner) should be no more than 6 ft (1. 8 m) from the floor.

 Putting the Poster Together: Cutting and Pasting

When you have printed your material and have any photos or objects for dis­play, you are ready to put everything together for the final presentation format. Have at hand two or three large sheets of poster board or heavy con­struction paper (available at art supply outlets or university bookstores) of the color you have chosen. This colored board or paper may then be cut so as to be somewhat larger than the sheets of paper you have printed. Uniform margins of approximately 1/2 in. or 1 cm generally look best. For 8 1/2 X 11 in. paper, the colored poster sheets could be cut to approximately 9 1/2 X 12 in., for example. The sheets of paper may then be attached to the poster sheets with glue or double-sided sticky tape. I prefer to use regular clear tape rolled into a 1-in. diameter ring (sticky side out) as the "glue", pressing the tape onto the back corners of the paper panels and then pressing the taped panels onto the colored poster paper. Doing the top corners first usu­ally ensures that the sheets are hung straight. The advantage of this kind of tape over the double-sided variety or glue is that it is quite easy to lift the tape and start over if things do not look right. If you have not already printed numbers on your white sheets (or planned on other devices to guide the viewer from panel to panel), now is the time to number your poster panels. Not only will it be easier for your readers to follow, but it will also allow you to hang the poster more quickly. I like to use round, colored labels found in stationery stores and to stick them on the top right-hand corner of each panel.

 Using a large table or the floor, practice laying out your completed poster panels within the area you will have at your disposal at the meeting. Keep in mind again that most of the panels need to be at a comfortable viewing level for the average person, that the sequence (right to left or up and down) needs to be clear, and that the panels need to "flow" from one to the other. After you have laid out the panels, look for overall symmetry and design. Is the arrange­ment pleasing? Does it catch the eye? How could it be improved?

 When you are satisfied with the layout, collect and stack the panels in numerical order. If none of your panels involve paper larger than letter size, your entire poster should now easily fit into a briefcase or folder for safe transport to the meeting, ready to be hung with a minimum of last-minute worry about order, fit, or design.

 Further Preparations

Be ready with a short oral summary of the main points of your poster. A brief synopsis of the purpose of your experiments, the results you achieved, and the conclusions you draw is very useful, particularly for those viewers who say, "Can you tell me in a few words what this is all about?"

 Also prepare brief oral explanations of the important features of each panel, particularly those containing tables, figures, spectra, and so forth.

 This groundwork will allow you to "walk through" the poster with am one who seems particularly interested. Preparing an oral summary and explana­tions may sound easy (after all, you prepared the panels and must know what they contain), but it takes some thought and planning, particularly if it is to be done clearly and quickly. 

It also can be handy to have several copies of a one-page (or half-page) handout with your name, poster title, affiliation, meeting data, and addresses (e-mail, etc.) along with a summary of your poster, structure of the compound you prepared, or whatever is most appropriate. These hand­outs can be given to those who seem particularly interested and with whom you may later wish to correspond. It may be difficult to estimate demand for these-you do not want to hand them out like advertising leaflets-but don't be too modest.

 Hanging the Poster

At ACS meetings, your poster should be mounted before the opening of the poster session and left in place until the closing of the session. Generally you will have been given instructions as to when to hang your poster or told the time that it is expected to be available for viewing.

Well-organized meetings, such as ACS national meetings, will have your assigned space clearly marked with the poster number as it appears in the meeting program, along with push pins for your use. A very good idea, however, is to bring along some of your own favorite thumbtacks or colored pins just in case there are not enough provided or you don't like the style. Remember that most ordinary thumbtacks are not long enough to go through heavy poster stock and into the boards.

It is assumed that you know the dimensions of your allotted space, that you designed your poster with this space in mind, and that, indeed, the space you have been given closely approximates what you expected. It is then a matter of scanning the area and pinning your prepared panels neatly, straight, and in sequence according to your predetermined plan. Put up the title panel first, particularly if the title is long. Again, try to have most of your important information at eve level. If you have a prepared summary handout, place copies on a convenient surface or chair (most often not avail­able) or pin them to the poster board with a small note saying "Take one."

 Monitoring the Poster

Very often posters are expected to be up and available for viewing for some specified time, with you expected to be there in person for some shorter but clearly designated time interval. At ACS meetings, you are encouraged to be present for the entire session. Assume that some people will really want to see your poster and may therefore wish to speak to you. Stand next to the poster, but do not obstruct the view. Avoid chatting with your neigh­boring poster presenter or with your research-group fan club. If you are already speaking with someone, you tend to discourage dialogue with view­ers who do not want to interrupt but may otherwise be quite interested in your work. In other words, be professional and "at the ready". Be sure your name tag is visible so that a visitor can identify you and address questions to you. If at all possible, plan to stay for more than the minimum time assigned.

 You will discover that people who visit your poster have their own indi­vidual styles, and it is well to be prepared for them. Some will just glance at the title and possibly the conclusion and move on. That's fine and is to be expected; you have probably done the same thing when the subject is not one that happens to be in your area; if you are in a hurry; or if the poster is unattractive, carelessly presented, or does not look readable.

 Some people will come by and say, "Tell me about your poster." These are the folks for whom you have prepared your short synopsis. Remember to keep it brief and to the point, emphasizing the purpose of your study and the main conclusions, so that you will have time for other people.

Some viewers will quietly read each word and leave without comment. It is perfectly acceptable to stand by without saying anything yourself while someone reads your poster. It is also acceptable, especially if there is not much other activity, and if the person seems to be interested, to offer to go through the poster (your panel-by-panel explanation) and ask whether he or she has any comments or questions.

 Still other people will scan the poster carefully and then ask questions. Occasionally these questions are quite simple: "What temperature did you run this reaction at?" But other questions, especially if they are from some­one working in a related area, can be based on a real understanding of your problem or system. These questions may be answered at more length and in more detail. Often they prove very helpful, in that they may inform you of related work or references of which you were unaware, suggest further lines of experimentation, or postulate alternative conclusions. This type of one-­on-one scientific dialogue is, of course, what makes poster sessions so spe­cial. Real discussion can take place, and contacts, friendships, and even future collaborations can be established. When you realize that your visitor is working in a related area, give out your one-page summary handout.

 You may receive questions for which you do not have a ready answer. If you do not know the answer to a question, admit it. You could say some­thing like, "I'm not certain on that point; I'll need to check on it," or "That is an excellent point; I'll need to take that into consideration." The best response may be to take the name and address of the questioner and send the answer when you know it. In any case, do not try to cover up, change the subject, or answer a different question. Your questioner will certainly notice, and you will not rise in his or her estimation by being evasive.

 In all these situations, the usual rules of conversational discourse apply: Make eye contact, speak clearly but at low volume and with enthusiasm, lis­ten to your visitors' comments and questions, and express appreciation for their interest.

 Finally, you may provide sign-up sheets to record the names and addresses of attendees who might want you to send them more information.

 Removing and Saving the Poster

In many cases, other poster sessions follow yours or other activities are planned for the poster room, so it is essential (and prudent, if you don't want to lose the poster!) to take it down promptly at the designated time. At ACS national meetings, it should be removed immediately after the close of the session. "Used" posters are nice to save for display at the home institu­tion-outside your office or lab, for example, to inform (impress) visitors, colleagues, and future co-workers about your productivity and accomplish­ments.

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*** Note, for the purposes of the NJCO the poster must fit into an area of 1m x 1m x 1m.  This is actually smaller than what is recommended by ACS.


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