Strong Scientific Posters: Presenting science concisely with Bruce Kirchoff
If you struggle with putting together a poster that really showcases your research, you’re not alone! Dr Bruce Kirchoff, university professor and author of Presenting Science Concisely, explains two common misconceptions of poster design and gives his top tips on producing a strong scientific poster.
Posters are the most difficult of all scientific forms of presentation. A good poster must satisfy at least three somewhat contradictory functions: it must attract passers-by and make them want to learn more, it must serve as a backdrop for your oral presentation, and it must present your work to viewers who visit when you are not present.
Finding a way to satisfy these three needs is what makes posters so hard to design. Occasionally, a fourth function is sometimes added. Some posters must work well both for in person and online presentation. Let us look at two common misconceptions about poster design and see how you can address them.
Misconception One: People read posters in the same way they read a page of text
This is the most widespread and pernicious misconception about posters. It is also one of the easiest to debunk. Think about how you behave when you visit a poster session. You are walking along the line of posters trying to decide whether you should stop to learn more about one. Are you reading anything other than the title? No, you are not. You do not have time to read any of the text.
Let us say that something draws your attention, and you stop to learn more. Do you read the poster? Not if the author is present. If she is present, you ask her to explain her research. Only if she is not present will you turn to the text, but will you read it from start to finish? Probably not. You will skim it, looking for the main points so that you can go on and visit other posters. So, the best-case scenario is that you will skim the text of the poster, and you will only do that if there are no other alternatives.
Let us now return to your initial attraction to the poster. You are walking down the line of posters looking for something that draws your attention. What is most likely to draw your attention? Let us assume that there are no posters in your specialty along this aisle. In this case there are two parts of the poster that might catch your interest as you walk by: the title, and the graphic elements.
We will return to the title later. Let’s start with the graphic elements. This may be the layout of the poster, or it may be some graph or image that attracts attention. Let us stop and consider what we have just discovered. We have just discovered that the first function of a poster, that of attracting attention to your research, is best served if the poster functions more as a single image than as a page of text.
There are several things you can do to make use of this insight. First, reduce the amount of text on your poster. No one is attracted to a wall of text. You only need enough text to elaborate your main point, which will be conveyed in your title.
Second, use informative graphics to explain your research. Your graphic elements should be intuitive and easy to understand and should be clearly related to your research. A beautiful picture of your research subject will be less informative and less effective than a well-crafted, easy to understand graph that illuminates your main finding.
Finally, place your graphic elements in the center of your poster so that they are easy to see, and easy to reference when you are explaining your research. If you do these things, your poster will attract much more attention and you will have the chance of explaining your work to more people.
Misconception Two: Your title just needs to introduce your work
Your title is the most important part of your poster, yet many scientists seem to think that any title is good if it tells the audience the general area of research.
Let us consider an example journal article title as a stand-in for a poster title: Small mammal diversity is higher in infrequently compared with frequently burnt rainforest–savanna mosaics in the north Kimberley, Australia (published in Wildlife Research). This title tells the reader exactly what this research is about. It leaves no doubt about the poster’s conclusions. It draws the reader in and makes them want to know more.
Compare this with a more conventional title for the same research: The effect of fire regime on small mammal diversity in rainforest–savanna mosaics in the north Kimberley, Australia. This title gives the general area of research but is not specific about the results. Given this title, it is even possible that there was no effect of fire regime. A visitor would most likely skip this poster unless they work in the same area, whereas the first title has a much greater chance of drawing visitors.
From this we can see that the most effective title you can write is one that summarizes your main finding. This, coupled with a good graphic layout, will be sure to draw attention to your work and make your poster presentation a success!
Dr Bruce Kirchoff is a botanist and Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA.
Find out more about good scientific communication and receive news on free workshops at his website: presentingscienceconcisely.com.