Tips for Poster Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences
By Nina Lichtenberg
As a PhD student (or even a postdoc), there seems to be a poster presentation looming just around the corner every few months. So, chances are you will have lots of opportunities to deliver an excellent poster presentation. Poster presentations are near and dear to my heart. My first scientific presentation at a conference was in the form of a poster.
The advice below is based on my own experiences at both large and small scientific (neuroscience) national and international conferences, so please note that these tips may not apply 100% to every scientific field.
Before the presentation: be a graphics pro
The first step to giving a poster presentation is to create the poster!
First, decide on which software program you will use to make your poster. In my field, there are two options: Microsoft PowerPoint or Adobe Illustrator, or any other vector or raster-based (i.e. Photoshop) graphics program. Gimp and/or Inkscape are excellent free options – these are nice for creating original illustrations or diagrams. I’ve used both PowerPoint and Illustrator to create posters but prefer PowerPoint because moving objects around is easier with this software.
The most useful tools in PowerPoint (in my opinion):
- Align: allows you to align and distribute several images at once, or align to the slide
- Gridlines: view your grid right from the start so that aligning later isn’t so tough
- Format object / size and position: rather than manually trying to size each object (i.e. graphs or images), select all objects at once and enter exact sizes
- Group: this allows you to group or link objects together as one moveable object
- Spell & grammar check: why yes, PowerPoint also has spell check!
Once you have your blank canvas, visit the conference website and figure out the appropriate size or dimensions for your poster. Then, size your slide or artboard to your desired printed poster size. Typically, it’s a good idea to organize your poster as vertical panels, one for each section. For example, if organizing from left to right, the introduction and methods are typically in the left panel, main data are in the middle, and conclusions and future directions are in the rightmost panel. This is up to you. Be sure to follow all rules and suggestions for font or image size and citation styles stated on the conference website.
I cannot stress this enough. When you convert your poster to PDF check the file for any conversion errors or blurry images. The objects on your poster may look clear and sharp when zoomed out, but they may end up blurry on the printed version. The printed poster is many times larger than the file you’re viewing. So, after you convert to PDF, zoom in to each figure and image to check the resolution. Everything on your poster should be relatively clear when you zoom in. If you’re having image resolution issues, check the image compression settings in the “Save As” menu. These issues often vary between devices and operating systems – Google is your best friend. Often, it helps to group everything in the document prior to converting to PDF.
When you go to print your poster at the local printing shop or on campus, remember to state the exact desired printing dimensions. If your poster is too big, it won’t fit on the board and will stand out like a sore thumb. I’ve seen this way too many times!
During the real-life presentation: be a poster pro
Prior to your presentation, practice your spiel a handful of times. But don’t over practice, so during the actual presentation you can easily deviate from your story to answer any questions from attendees. It’s helpful to practice to a live audience. This can be an audience composed of your scientific peers and / or non-scientists. In fact, practicing a poster to someone outside of your field or to a non-scientist is beneficial because at the poster session you will likely present your data to those from various scientific disciplines.
The dos and don’ts of poster presentations
- Introduce yourself to your poster attendees (if they don’t know you already)
- Start with a general statement about the topic and goals of your research project (limit this to 1-2 minutes)
- Mention your hypothesis going in to the project and the methods (1 minute)
- Talk about your data and what you found (2-3 minutes)
- Mention an overall summary or conclusion based on the data (1 minute)
- Point to illustrations, figures, or text you are referring to as you walk your attendee through the poster
- Keep the total presentation short (5-7 minutes) – I know, impossible! This is why it’s important to practice the timing beforehand.
- Present your story the way in which it’s organized on the poster, typically from left to right or from top to bottom
- Be polite and if an attendee is taking up a lot of your presentation time with questions, ask them to speak with you more after the poster session or via email
- Speak loudly, especially if there are multiple attendees present
- Don’t make your presentation last forever; more than 6 or 7-ish minutes is way too long, your attendees will tune out.
- However, don’t rush through your poster in a few minutes
- Don’t try to discuss every single image, diagram, figure, table, etc. on the poster – chances are, you will only have time to discuss the main points. You can elaborate more on certain components if an attendee asks a relevant question.
- Don’t expect that your attendee knows the background information and techniques needed to understand your data – ask them about this up front
- Don’t stand facing your poster! How would you feel if someone were talking to you about something you care about with their back to you?
Getting a poster presentation opportunity at a conference (or elsewhere)
The simplest way to find poster presentation opportunities at conferences and meetings is to browse the conference organization’s website for calls for abstracts. There’s typically a poster presentation session at most scientific conferences, both large and small. Abstract acceptances are often relatively non-competitive, but this is largely dependent on the size and scope of the meeting. Word of mouth is also powerful. Ask your fellow graduate students, lab mates, and professors for good poster sessions taking place at upcoming conferences they know of.
Apart from conferences, there are often poster opportunities on campus or at nearby campuses. Apply for any relevant poster presentation opportunity you come across. Oftentimes these intramural or local poster sessions are 100% free and open to graduate students across research disciplines and institutions. For example, although my research is focused on behavioral neuroscience, I recently decided to submit an abstract to present a poster at a biomedical sciences graduate student symposium hosted by a local university / medical center. This is definitely out of my niche, but will allow me to strengthen my skills in communicating science to a broader audience.
Poster presentations are a lot of fun. Hopefully they will come about often. Remember, to jump on any poster presentation opportunities that arise, whether on campus, across town, or at a national conference.
Nina Lichtenberg earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. Currently, she is working on wrapping up her PhD in the Psychology department at UCLA by studying the neural circuitry of memory retrieval and decision making. Apart from research, she spends her time developing a neuroscience outreach program that connects undergraduates with the local LA community and builds their scicomm skills.
You can follow Nina on Twitter @NTlichten or connect with her on LinkedIn. Want to meet Nina in person (and see her present some data)? She’ll be at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, CA, from November 3-7 giving poster presentations on her outreach and science.
Read Nina’s other blog post: Tips for oral presentations at scientific meetings and conferences
Other resources you may find helpful
One of the things we’re most passionate about is supporting early career life scientists. Here are some other guides and resources that you may find helpful:
- The Life Scientists' Guide to Wellbeing
- The Life Scientists' Guide for New PhD Students
- The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them
- Apply for a Travel Grant: every month we give away $500 to PhD students and Postdocs so that they can attend a scientific conference. Give it a go - it's really easy to apply.
- Read advice from other scientists - in our Interviews with Scientists' series
- Molarity Calculator: a quick and easy way to calculate the mass, volume or concentration required for making a solution
- Dilution Calculator: an easy way to work out how to dilute stock solutions of known concentrations
- Mini-reviews, Pathway Posters & Product Guides: a set of technical resources to answer your questions on a wide range of topics and to help you get started quickly
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