Preparing a Poster Presentation

Posters are a legitimate and popular presentation format for research and clinical vignettes. They efficiently communicate concepts and data to an audience using a combination of visuals and text. Most scientific meeting planners take advantage of the popularity and communication efficiency of poster presentations by scheduling more poster than oral presentations. Poster presentations allow the author to meet and speak informally with interested viewers, facilitating a greater exchange of ideas and networking opportunities than with oral presentations. Poster presentations often are the first opportunities for young investigators to present their work at important scientific meetings and preparatory for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Poster Production Timeline

In order to be successful, certain prerequisites must be met. First, you must have a desire to be scholastically effective and be willing to put the time into the design and production of the poster. Second, you need organizational skills. Like any other endeavor associated with deadlines, you must be able to deliver the product on time. Posters are associated with more deadlines than oral presentations, due to the necessary interaction with graphic artists, graphic production, and the needs of the meeting itself. Organizational skills are also needed to create a concise and logically structured graphic and text presentation of the research or vignette. In order to help you achieve these goals, this article addresses poster planning, production, and presentation. It may be helpful to create a poster production timeline.

  1. Determine if your poster will be judged at the scientific meeting. If so, ask for the judging criteria, which will be immensely helpful for you to plan and construct the poster.
  2. Know the rules. It is your responsibility to know the physical requirements for the poster including acceptable size and how it will be displayed. A 4' × 4' display area cannot accommodate a 6' × 6' poster and a 3' × 3' poster will look insignificant in an 8' × 8' display area. All scientific programs that sponsor a poster session will send you information on the display requirements at the time your poster is accepted for presentation. Review and follow the instructions precisely. However, be warned that not all scientific programs will automatically tell you how the poster will be displayed. Some programs provide a cork/tack-board system that allows you to display your poster by fastening it to a solid display board with stickpins. This gives you the option of displaying your poster as many individual parts (components of the poster, such as abstract, methods, graphics, conclusion, are fastened individually to the display board) or as one piece. Other programs "hang" their posters from a frame by large spring clips. This means that the poster must be created as a single unit and cannot be too heavy for the clips or too light such that it will curl upwards like a window shade. A few programs still use easels to display posters, mandating that the poster be constructed of or placed on a firm backing that can be supported in this way. The point is, find out how the poster will be displayed and engineer a poster that best meets the requirements.
  3. Determine exactly how the poster will be produced. Will you hire a graphic artist for partial or complete production? Does your institution provide graphic services to your department? Will you need to do this yourself? If payment is required, who will pay for the production? Regardless of who is doing the work and how it will be financed, only you can determine the individual tasks and set the deadlines. Make sure your deadlines include sufficient time to revise the poster if you find mistakes or otherwise need to make changes prior to the scientific meeting. Finally, if you are working with a graphic artist, make your timetable after consultation with him/her so it is realistic and he/she understands your time constraints.
  4. Compile a list of components that will appear on the poster. There are common elements to all posters, whether they are research presentations or clinical vignettes. At the top center, the poster should display the title, authors, and institutional affiliations. Any necessary acknowledgments can also be placed here. Many scientific programs will insist that the abstract be included on the poster and will specify its location (i.e., upper right corner).

Scientific posters should follow the IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion).

  • The Introduction presents the background and the purpose of the research. The background information typically consists of a statement summarizing the current knowledge in an area, what knowledge is missing, and how this research project addresses the knowledge gap. A hypothesis can be included in the Introduction.
  • The Methods section should specifically address the following areas: research design, research setting, number of patients enrolled in the study, and how they were selected. The Methods section should also include a description of the intervention (if appropriate), a description of the outcome variables and how they were measured, and the method of statistical analysis.
  • The Results section includes the quantitative data. This section usually begins with a description of the subjects in the study and a description of those who were not included because they failed to meet the inclusion criteria or dropped out. Include the frequencies of the most important outcome variables. Consider comparisons of the outcome variables between various subgroups within the study (treated vs. untreated, young vs. old, male vs. female, and so forth). Numerical results should include standard deviations or 95% confidence limits and the level of statistical significance should be indicated.
  • Finally, in the Discussion section, state concisely what can be concluded from the study and its implications. Make sure that the conclusions are supported by the data presented in the Results and do not present unsubstantiated personal opinion.

Clinical vignette posters generally have three components: Introduction, Case Description, and Discussion. A short Introduction typically describes the context of the case and explains its relevance and importance. When describing the case, follow the basic rules of medical communication by describing in sequence the history, physical examination, investigative studies, and patient's progress and outcome. The main purpose of the discussion is to review why decisions were made and to extract the lesson from the case. Be wary of boasting that your case is the "first" to describe a particular phenomenon, since even the most thorough searches often fail to reveal all instances of similar cases. Keep in mind that the best research and clinical vignette posters are those that make a small number of points (even just one) clearly and succinctly.

As you review your content, make decisions on what can be displayed pictorially. Posters that are mainly text discourage others from visiting and reviewing your work. Make your presentation as visual as possible; not only does it make your poster more appealing, but information can be transmitted more efficiently with a picture, figure, or graph. For example, information on patient demographics could be represented as a pie chart, frequencies of outcomes as bar graphs, and comparisons of means and statistical significance as tables. Clinical vignettes offer an excellent opportunity to display clinical photographs that illustrate important points of pattern recognition.

Finally, find out if you are required to be present during the poster session. Most scientific meetings schedule a period of time for the author to stand by the poster during the session. This enables you to answer questions about your work and, in some situations, is part of the judging process. Find out if and when this is scheduled.

A Few Tips on Poster Appearance:

Avoid clutter.

Limit your poster presentation to a few main ideas. It's better to present a few of your findings well than present all of your findings poorly. Arrange your poster components to read from left to right and top to bottom. Emphasize important points on the poster with lines, frames or boxes, and arrows.

Keep the lettering simple.

Use no more than three different font sizes; the largest for the poster title, second-largest for section titles, and smallest for text. For all lettering, use both upper- and lowercase letters. Words composed of all uppercase letters are difficult to read. The smallest font should be large enough so it is easily read from a distance of 3 to 5 feet (usually, 24-point font).

Keep the colors simple.

Too much color can be distracting, while too little color can be boring and lifeless. Use color mainly to highlight important elements.

You will need to decide how your poster will be constructed. Your budget and available graphic art resources will most likely influence this decision. At one end of the spectrum, you can inexpensively produce a poster with a graphics software package (such as PowerPoint) and a color printer. Your output will be limited to individual components that measure 8" × 11" to 11" × 17". These components will probably need to be mounted on a stiff backing, such as poster board or foam core, to effectively display them. At the other, more expensive end of the spectrum, you can work with the graphic arts department at your institution. They can use sophisticated software programs, such as Quark, to design and create a poster. The electronic version of the poster can be sent by e-mail to a printing or service bureau. Service bureaus produce a variety of visual products including posters, slides, signs, and limited print editions of books. They can print any size poster with all its component parts as a single unit usually within 24 to 48 hours. The cost of this service is difficult to estimate because it is dependent on a number of variables including poster size, use of color, resolution of the print (dpi, or dots per inch), whether it is laminated, or backed with foam core. A moderately priced poster may cost from $500 to $600. The staff in your graphic arts department can help you pick the options that are within your budget.

At the time of production, it is your responsibility to review the first draft, or copy, of the poster. This is your best chance to correct errors and make changes to improve the accuracy and visual attractiveness of the poster. Use the Poster Checklist to aid your review. In addition, have a colleague help you proofread. It's a good idea to have someone unfamiliar with the research or case help you because he or she will quickly identify areas that are confusing or ambiguous. It's a good idea to have someone who is expert in spelling and grammar review the poster as well. As mentioned previously, schedule the proofreading early enough in the process so that you have time to make any corrections or changes prior to the meeting.

As you prepare to travel to the scientific meeting, consider the following tips:

  • Arrange for a proper carrying case for your poster. A worthy investment can prevent damage to your poster and your reputation.
  • Don't check your poster as luggage. Carry the poster with you at all times. Better your clothes get lost than your poster.
  • Come with some basic equipment. Although these items are typically provided at scientific meetings, you may not have quick access to them. Bring with you:
    • Tape
    • Scissors
    • Push pins, tacks, or stapler
  • Know where and when to set up your poster. The room or area reserved for posters is usually noted in the meeting program. Arrive early to set up your poster. This will allow you to adapt to any surprises in the physical layout or unannounced changes in the method of displaying the poster. Additionally, it's easier to put up your poster when there are fewer people competing for space and equipment. Most scientific programs assign a unique identifying number to your poster that corresponds to location of the poster in the display area. Find out what your number is and place your poster in the corresponding spot.
  • Know when to "stand-by" your poster. The time will be listed in the meeting program. Arrive on time and stay until the end of scheduled time. Don't wander off; you may miss the judges, your next fellowship director, or your next partner or employer.
  • Know when to take your poster down. Meeting rooms turn-over fast. Have a clear understanding when the poster session is over and when the poster must come down. Failure to take the poster down at the appointed time can result in the hotel or convention staff (not so gently) removing it.
  • Be prepared to promote yourself. Consider bringing handouts and business cards for those who visit your poster. Use this opportunity to "network" with other professionals who share similar academic interests.

This final section provides examples of what makes a poster effective. As you study the examples, note that they share similar characteristics:

  • Organized and easy to follow the flow of information
  • Easy to read, using large font size and are not overly dense with text
  • Attractive, due to judicious use of colors, use of graphics, and arrangement

Listed below are a number of important poster characteristics and examples illustrating those characteristics: