Person showing a poster draft in hand entitled "my poster"

15: 5 smart strategies to get most out of a conference poster

Have you ever tried to create a conference poster that was well received and worth the time you invested? Not so easy! Many academic conferences treat poster as second class presentations, while oral presenters seem to get first class attention. Your poster has to compete with 500+ posters hanging on stands in a huge poster room, with each fighting for attention of the conference delegates. In these poster sessions, too many posters look the same and invite people to move on rather than to stop and read. But, it doesn’t have to be this way! A research poster can work extremely well if you follow the 5 strategies we present here. Just follow our easy-to-use checklist “Successful poster strategies”.

I. Posters are your perfect introduction to academic conferences

If you have never been to an academic conference, a poster is a good starting point to enter the world of academic conferences. Two reasons for this: 

1. Good alternative to oral presentations

A research poster given at a conference can be a smart alternative to an oral presentation, specifically if you have not presented at conferences before. You don’t have to go on stage in front of a large audience with a poster, if you feel uncomfortable with this. You are not critically exposed to a large group of people at once, and there is usually no peer-review applied to the poster. So clearly, there are fewer reasons to be nervous. If you still feel nervous, have a look at our article “How to cope with stage fright”. It will help you to find a good way to become more confident with your poster presentation. 

2. Learn how conferences work 

A research poster is a good way to familiarise yourself with how academic meetings work. You can take part in the conference even if your research is not finished, and can already show fellow researchers what you’ve been working on. You don’t need to defend your work, but can discuss it with interested peers on a one-to-one basis. Also, it is usually less work to prepare than a full oral conference presentation. And don’t forget, presenting a poster also usually pays the ticket for your travel to the conference, because most research institutes require researchers to give either a poster or oral presentation if they want to attend a conference. So, it’s a pretty good deal! 

II. The work to payoff ratio of poster presentations feels poor

Critically viewed, poster sessions at scientific meetings and conferences are not always a highlight. This is because of two reasons: 

1. Low priority given to poster sessions

Conference organisers sometimes treat poster sessions as the stepchildren of conferences. They squeeze them into the programme with short time slots, probably in competition with a coffee break running parallel to the poster session. Or they are banished to far-off corners of the conference centre, where the delegates need to make an extra effort to go there, if they can find it at all. We remember once taking part at a conference where posters were presented in two large rooms one floor above the main lobby where everybody was grabbing coffee and biscuits. In addition, the two poster rooms were so tightly packed with poster stands it was like navigating through a labyrinth. Poor poster presenters! They had a hard time getting any attention at all. Luckily, there are quite a few conferences that treat poster presenters much better!

2. Posters are often designed with low audience appeal

But even for a super-interested audience, poster presenters do not always make it easy to get excited about visiting a poster session and connect with their individual posters. Some posters seem almost designed to keep people away from them, burying you under a mountain of information you couldn’t possibly read in a few minutes. At another conference were at, we strolled through the huge poster hall with hundreds of posters and their respective presenters, but the posters were so overloaded with content, we didn’t even know where to start reading! It ended like just that – with an orange juice in one hand, and a couple of biscuits in the other – we quickly walked through the hall, but hardly stopped anywhere. Too bad, as the individual authors of the posters had for sure spent a lot of time crafting the posters, but the posters themselves didn’t appeal to us to connect with their creators. 

However, you can do a lot to make sure that your first, or your next visit to an academic conference with a research poster will be a great experience. If you follow the 5 strategies that we outline below, you are in a good position to have a well-received poster! We have also created a checklist so that you can use it to create a stellar poster for your next presentation. You can download it for free here: “Successful Poster Strategies”.

Poster strategy 1: Clarify purpose and audience for your conference poster!

Let’s first think about why we are presenting posters at conferences at all. Conference posters have a short life time. They are not made to last long. In fact, ideally, a poster is created for one specific event and serves a specific audience with a specific purpose. So, you need to define this purpose for your poster (and no, it is not a purpose in itself just to create a poster in order to be able to go on a conference). 

You may say now, “but I want to use my poster after the conference, it is not made for the conference only!” Well, we also know that many conference posters have a second life, where they survive at institutes, decorating walls and corridors like academic wallpaper. They are just waiting for the accidental visitor to pass by the corridor for some other reason and glance at the poster. To be clear: This is NOT the purpose, nor the audience of a research poster! 

A research poster made for a conference serves two main purposes:

  1. to inform others about and to communicate your research,  
  2. to connect you with relevant peers to network. 

So before you start preparing a research poster for a conference you’re off to, try to answer the following questions for yourself. Your answers will help you to prepare a poster with a clear purpose and for a specific audience (and not for the institute corridor!): 

  • Who will be in the audience at the conference? 
  • Will you meet experts from your narrow field or from a broader scientific field? 
  • How many people roughly will be coming?
  • How many posters will be there? 
  • Who are the peers you would like to attract to your research poster?
  • Why? What do you expect will happen when peers see your poster? 

Poster strategy 2: Create a hook to catch the audience!

Once you know what the purpose of your conference poster and who your audience will be, think about how your audience can become aware of your poster. Ideally, your poster should stand out in the crowd of other posters and catch the attention of peers. 

Your poster should invite people to come over and read it. To make this possible, you need a ‘hook’, a visual or a textual trigger that catches attention. The hook can be a large visual element or a keyword that is boldly placed on your poster. It needs to be seen from a long distance to avoid delegates just passing your poster by. 

Try to answer the following questions to help you connect with your audience: 

  • Why should somebody stop and read/view my poster?
  • What is the hook that attracts delegates to come and see my poster?
  • What is the one message that I would like to tell the conference audience? 

Poster strategy 3: Don’t overload your conference poster with too much information!

Information overload is a key problem for many conference posters. As scientists, we want to be very precise and detailed in our communication. This is a noble attitude, but communication does not necessarily improve when you try to convey too much information. For posters, the guiding principle is “less is more!”

Forget about the idea that you are reporting on your project or your paper on a poster. No poster can live up to these ambitions. A great poster is an appetiser, a teaser for more. It tells a story, but without giving away too many details. Oh, we can see how the hands are going up, you might object here and claim “But for a scientific audience, I need to provide details, evidence, data facts …!” Yes we hear you, but not a lot of that has to be on the poster. The poster, first of all, is there to facilitate a connection between you and interested peers. 

Keep in mind, people spend very little time on one single poster while they are walking along a row of 20-30 or more posters. A poster with a lot of detail means: “I have to read a lot before I understand what it’s about.” Probably, the visitors of the poster session have already heard so many detailed talks in the sessions during the day, that “more detail” is just too much. 

To avoid overloading information, follow these suggestions when designing your poster: 

  • Focus on visual communication rather than on text. 
  • Keep text to a minimum. 
  • You do not need to have an introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, references and acknowledgement part on your poster! It is not a paper printed on a large canvas!
  • Don’t cut and paste text from somewhere else (e.g. from a paper). Create new text for this poster! 
  • Don’t fill the entire poster space. Leave empty/blank space.  
  • Don’t overlay layers of information as this is confusing to read. 
  • Use large font sizes. Can you read your poster from 3-5 m away? 

Poster strategy 4: Be prepared to tell a story about your work! 

You caught the attention of an interested person who stopped and started reading your poster? Great! Now, you have the possibility to complete the second aim of your poster: to establish a connection with this person. Let the person read and view your poster, but stand close by so that they know the poster belongs to you and that they can ask you for more information. If they don’t start to connect with you, you can try to make the first step and introduce yourself. After all, you want to tell a story, and you have an interested listener in front of you! 

To prepare for this scenario, answer the following questions before the event: 

  • What kind of questions could the person reading my poster have?
  • What could be unclear to them?
  • On which part could I fill them in with more interesting information?
  • How could I start a conversation with this person? 

You can also ask them for their name or business card so that you could be in touch with them later.

Poster strategy 5: Prepare something to take home!

Some people stopped at your poster and talked with you about your research? Fantastic! Now, make sure that you establish that first contact in a way that the initial connection might last beyond the conference. Give your contact something they can take home or provide them with information where they can find out more about you and your work. People love to have something in hand so that they can remember you later. 

Prepare one or several of the following:

  • Business cards
  • Your email or social media contact details
  • A smaller-sized printed hand-out version of your poster (A4 or similar)
  • A paper or any other relevant publication about the poster topic (if available)
  • A website or a video where more information on the research can be found
  • Place a QR barcode on the poster or anything that you handout to give your peers quick access to the website or a video.

You won’t be next to your poster all the time, therefore, leave a little box with something to take away next to your poster for those moments. 

Conclusion: 

Yes, it can be more difficult for presenters of research posters than for oral presenters to catch attention and reach a large audience. Both groups, however, face the same challenge: They need peers to come and find them within a sea of presentations. Rest assured, interested peers will come and find you. Remember, the purpose of an academic conference is to exchange with and inform each other about the interesting research we are doing. We go to conferences to get in contact with our peers, so that we can learn and benefit from each other and eventually facilitate cooperation. 

A good research poster gives you all the options to achieve this aim. You will definitely achieve this more successfully if you follow our 5 strategies above. To help you with your next poster, we’ve created a handy checklist for free download: “Successful Poster Strategies”. Use this one to check off your poster features and we are absolutely sure you will have a stunning poster session! Give it a try! 

Relevant resources:  

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© 2019 Tress Academic

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