Tracy Volz, Ph.D.
The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
Thanks for coming to our presentation today. Dr. Tracy Volz is going to give us a presentation on how to prepare and present the scientific poster. Dr. Tracy Philips is the assistant director, and an awarding winning instructor at the Cain Project over at Rice University. She supports written, oral and visual communication instruction, in sciences and engineering courses. And prior to joining the team over at Rice, she worked at Baylor University in the Center for Collaborative and Interactive Technology as a grant writer in Education, I'm sorry, as a grant writer for education initiatives, as well as developing web interfaces and web based continuing medical modules. So here's Dr. Tracy Volz.
Thanks for inviting me to come and speak to you this afternoon. Scientific posters have become an incredible popular genre for disseminating [assumed spelling] research results quickly in the scientific and engineering community. Just last month, for example, I gave a talk at the biomedical engineering society meeting in Nashville, and there were two poster sessions over the course of a four-day conference, and three hundred posters were displayed in those two sessions. And they were sessions that involved a lot of activity and dialogue and collaboration, and people were really interested in milling around and learning what they could about the kinds of research that's going on at other institutions. So posters are becoming a popular way of disseminating results, but many people seem to struggle with the challenges of putting together really good posters.
Posters have to be lean and clean. And, by that I mean they have to be organized around particular cues and visual cues that allow people to quickly grasp the key points that you're trying to communicate. They need to understand the problem, the experimental design and the results very quickly. Posters have to stand alone because in many cases you set up your poster in the session, but you're only expected to stand beside it for a particular part of the session, they might say, you come between one and three p.m. But that means that between three and five p.m. your poster has to represent your work without you standing there to supplement it with explanation. So again you have to think careful about crafting a message that's accessible. And finally the other challenge of posters is that audiences come and go. If any of you have experiences of poster sessions, you know that you might have talked your way all the way through the objectives and the methods, and all of a sudden new people walk up, and you have to quickly adjust to bring them into the presentation without letting go of the people who've been with you from the beginning.
So managing that communication interaction is a challenge, and again one that many people don't manage particular well. And just to show you a quick example. I did a lot of work at Baylor College of Medicine, at Baylor University, so a lot of my examples today are from Baylor. As you can see this is a typical kind of poster that you see at a conference, and someone has not produced something that facilitates efficient and easy access to the information, right. You have huge blocks of text and figures of graphs just looking out at the center of this poster, and it's not clear which figures go with which captions. In some respects, it's very neat, but you can't walk up and get the gist of this in two minutes as a viewer. So my goal in the session today is to help provide you with some strategies to overcome these challenges. Like I said we're going to go over some basic design principles, and figure out how to situate your message, so that it's accessible, and then at the end I have several examples on slides that we can talk about the strengths and weaknesses to help you, give you some ideals about what you might like to do the next time you have to design a poster.
The first thing, of course that you have to do is determine what content you need to represent on the poster. And I see a few people talking notes, I want you to know that there will be a handout distributed at the end that contains a lot of the information that I've about to provide. So again you have to craft your message, and the first thing, of course to figure is what's your news, what problem have you solved, what are your main results and conclusions, obviously you cannot represent all of your results. So which two or three results do you want to represent. What sets your work apart from other work that's being done in the area. Have you taken a new theoretical [assumed spelling] approach? Do you have a different method for doing it, have you interpreted an existing set of data, but have a new bend on it. Why does you work matter, what's significant about it, and how can it be applied? Next, you have to think about who your particular audience is, who are the people that are attending the poster session. Are they people who are very familiar with your strain of research.
Are you trying to reach a broader community, maybe stretching to a conference that's a little bit outside of your area, maybe an interdisciplinary area conference where you have to do more bridging. What are their backgrounds, do they know the jargon. Do they understand the basic premises of the work that's being done. What are they going to gain from viewing your poster and having a conversation with you about it? It's really important to think about your audience upfront. For example, if you're going to a conference where you're working with people who do the same kinds of research that you're doing, these people are going to be more interested in the results, and you'll have to spend a lot less area on your poster devoted to background and motivation. Whereas, if you're going to a more generalist conference, they'll need more context then a set of people who are more closely allied with you. So you have to think about that in planning the content for your work. I have two main strategies for selecting content for a poster. And they may seem a little bit superficial, but I think they make a great first attack in trying to dwindle down the amount of information to something that's really accessible. And one is to rank information, must know, good to know, nice to know.
If you've written a paper for example on your project, I would suggest taking three colors of highlighters and go through and rank some information in one color that people must know to get the gist of the work. Take a second color, what would be good to know. And all that nice information has to be shuttled, but you cannot get into the details of a project on a poster. What you could do is create a handout that has a lot of those nice details on it. So one way is to take a paper, and to highlight down the three kinds of information that you'd like to include and to make some decision in terms of prioritizing. Another is to write an abstract about your project, just write an abstract, if you haven't written up a whole paper. And then think about representing only that abstract on the poster because that should be the must crucial information, that typically sets up the problem, it's significance, the experimental design, the key results and the conclusions, which is what posters are designed to represent. So those are the two main strategies that I typically use when helping people put together posters. Then you have to make that news accessible.
There are a few things to do. One is to include an abstract on the poster itself, or at least an introductory summary. And typically that information should go in the top right corner of a poster, that's where people generally look first for that kind of broad overview. Or you can setup a problem statement and your objectives in that top right corner. Use specific headings and titles. This is key because if there are three hundred posters that I could look at between one and three p.m., I'm going to walk into one of those big hotel conference rooms, and I'm going to scan around, and figure out what I want to go look at. Sure, I may have looked at the program in advance, but once I get in there, I'm going to be scanning to look for titles that interest me. So the title has to be large and it needs to be specific, you can't just use a vague title in hopes that it will invite more attention because people will just be curious and come up to talk to you about the work, and figure out what your particular angle is. So a poor title might be palama membranes, like that's very general. A better title would be macroporous plasma membranes in colloidal crystal templates.
Be as specific as possible in setting up the title and the headings in the poster that organize the information. Instead of just saying method, name the specific method you use as the heading. When you're presenting data, report the result of the data as the heading if you can, don't waste that space, by just having results one, results two, results three, so use specific headings. And then finally do what you can to reduce jargon. Your jargon will only alienate people from understanding your work in many cases, you want to try to use terminology that's accessible, if you use acronyms, make sure that you spell them out fully at least once before you resort to the acronym. So these three strategies can help people make quick decisions about whether or not to look at your poster. Whether or not they can learn something from you. So once you've crafted your message, you've got to figure it out how to lay it out in the space. And this is typically a tough thing to do. We're going to go through some of the visual strategies that you can use. I frequently use PowerPoint to design posters, but you can use Adobe Illustrator, you can use Corel, there's lots of different software programs that you can use to design posters.
I just happen to be very familiar with PowerPoint, and I know that our printers, our big plotters and printers at Rice can easily print PowerPoint files. And it's important to find out up front what kinds of printers; what kinds of software your printers can work with. You don't want to design a poster in something that your poster, the plotter printer can't read. So you have to lay out the presentation. As you're contemplating how to do that, think in advance what's the best organizational strategy that you can use. Are you setting up problem solution? Does an image really capture the thrash of your work? Are you comparing an old kind of technology approach to a new approach? Is it a demonstration? Think in advance about what will best represent your work visually. And then you have to match that visualization to the layout that you choose. And these are some very traditional layouts, right? Left, right, flow and vertical columns, left, right, flow and horizontal, [inaudible] text captions around it, to field and contract. And just to kind of show you what I mean, this is a typical vertical layout, left to right, top to bottom, in the same way that we read newspapers. This is a very common organizational flow. This is the same organizational flow flushed out a little bit more fully.
You'll notice that the problem is up on the top right, that's also where you could situation the abstract. And the conclusions, people are always looking for the conclusions in the bottom, right. I have done poster studies, and asked people to comment as they reviewed posters. People want to look at the top right and the bottom left to get the whole gist of your project, so make sure the important information is there. This is the example of the horizontal flow, left to right. Here we have a centered image with boxes around it. And then finally two fields in contrast. And again these are the traditional organizational structures for posters. You can be more creative, but usually if you are more creative, you have to be careful about making sure that the cues you setup don't get misinterpreted. So that it doesn't get too crazy. So you've laid it out, now, you have to guide the reader through it, how do you do that? Well, you have to create different scales for information. The most important information should be the largest on the poster; right? Title should be very big. Heading should be big. Text should be smaller. You want to use scale, and you want to use it consistently in terms of sizes. Using indenting, use bulleted list. If you use bulleted list, choose two different bullets to represent two different levels of information. If may be a round dot for high-level bullets, and a dash for sub bullets.
Don't use all round dots for bullets. White space; make sure that you have adequate white space to direct people's gaze. You want them to have a clear sense of the organizational flow of your poster, you want to have enough white space around, different figures, so that they don't seem crowded, or packed in a way that the information is packed on the poster that we unrolled right at the beginning of the talk. Use color to add coherence. By that I mean, maybe, you've chosen to use all black text for your poster, but if there is one red sentence that encapsulates your goal, it will stand out against all that black text. In terms of coherence, you might have two different methods that you're using in your work. And if you put the same colored background behind both methods, it will provide coherence; it will group them visually with color. One thing is to avoid is creating a poster that looks like a rainbow. I'd be very limited in the number of colors that you choose in designing posters; usually you don't want to choose more then three or four colors on a poster. Here are some tips about font sizes.
Typically, the title you want it to be six to eight words. Sans-serif font, if you are familiar with that, that's a font of the sort that you see in the title where it says font style and size at the very top of the slide up here. You'll notice that those letters don't have the little curly-q's on the ends of the little feet that you see on the serif text represented in white. San-serif text is typically cleaner, and I highly recommended it for posters, you could use all san-serif text for a poster, if you wanted. In terms of size, the title should be 90 to a 120, make it as big as possible. Headings, again, sans serif 36 to 48. And for text, no smaller then 30, you want people to be able to read your poster from five feet away, which means it needs to be at least 30 point. Captions can be smaller. References can be smaller. Acknowledgment can be smaller. But for the average text that you're using to represent the key points, no smaller then 30. So those are some recommendations about fonts.
If you introduce figures and graphs, and tables, make sure that you introduce them in the text bullet, make sure that they're in close proximity to those bullets, so that there is a clear relationship in continuity. Make sure that they are all sufficiently titled and labeled, and captioned. Don't just assume that if you put a plaque up that someone viewing that plaque will take away the same conclusion that you drew - make it explicit. Tag those images with explanations if you need to with cutout boxes. Bullets, this is imperative that you are as spare as possible in the amount of text that you put on the poster. Really make an effort to eliminate unnecessary articles and verbiage. Make sure that if you put together bulleted list that they are parallel in form, so that the poster is as lean as possible. If you feel it's necessary that people have a more extended version of your project, by all means take along copies of a paper that you've written, and hand it out, but don't try to just put all the paper on the poster because all that will do is turn people away.
People will walk up and say, hoof, I'm not going to read that, I don't want to read that, it's too dense. So really try to eliminate as much as text as possible. Details matter, make sure that all of the formatting is consistent. Make sure that if you've chosen a sans-serif font for the headings that every single heading is sans serif. If you've decided to use periods at the end of bullets, make sure that every single one of them has a period at the end of it. If you've decided to first cap the letter in a bulleted list, make sure that every single one has a first cap, be very consistence in the way that you use color, in the way that you use fonts, in the way that you use punctuation. Make sure that it's correct. If your poster looks sloppy, it implies that you might be a sloppy scientist, and you don't won't people walking away with that impression, so make sure that you spend some time making sure that there aren't any misspellings, grammatical errors, missing words. Don't forget to put references on the poster if you're using other people's works, you can have a work cited or reference list at the very end after the conclusions. Give credit to other people, give credit to other people in your lab in the acknowledgment section, funding sources, so that you show that you're part of a community, and that you appreciate the help that you've received. And don't forget to include contact information.
I have walked through sessions, and people have forgotten to put their names on the poster, [inaudible] they've got a great title, but there's no name. Make sure that your name and your email address, and your academic institution are represented. And if you have people working with you from multiple institutions, then you need to represent that, you can flip note their names with little numbers that correspond to the various institutions that you list, but make sure that that information's there, so that they can contact you. Then, of course, you've got the poster made, you've got it printed, it's in the tube ready to go, but you have to present it when you get there, and that takes some effort. Before you begin practicing your poster's field, think in advance about a few issues. One is, think about how you can represent your whole project in three sentences. What is your elevator's field for your whole project in three sentences? Second, think about which parts of your poster will be most challenging to explain to people. Maybe, you're using a particular kind of algorism, or a particular kind of assay [assumed spelling] that is unfamiliar, and complicated. Those moments will take longer to explain, you might have to draw in some analogies to help people understand.
Think in advance about the challenging parts of the poster. And then finally you also want to think about kinds of questions people are likely to have. And think about how you'll respond to those questions. So that's the kind of work you can do up front before you even begin practicing your poster's field. In advance, I would recommend practicing different versions of your poster pitch. One minute, two minutes, five minutes for somebody's who's really interested, somebody's who's going to stand there, and wants to understand the figures in detail. So three different versions of the poster talk. But again begin by summarizing the key points that's that three-second version, I mean the three sentences version; state that up front. You can go directly from that to reporting your key findings, if you sense that somebody doesn't have the patience to stand there for the five minute version, jump right from that three sentences overview to the results and conclusions, and skip all the methods, skip the specific games and hypothesis. Just go right from the summary to the results. You want to catch up people who walk up while you're in the middle of your poster talk. So for example, let's say that I have just finished getting through the methods and this woman walks up.
You want to acknowledge the person who has just walked up, don't just ignore them, right, at least make eye contact with the person who has just walked up to the poster, and situation that person in your talk, so that they know where to look, where to focus their attention as you're talking. So in this particular case, I would say, I just finished explaining our methods, and I was about to go through our key findings. Right, then this woman knows where I am in the poster, she's not standing there thinking, huh, you know, where am I suppose to be looking. Ask questions of the people who are standing around your poster. Ask them why they're interested in your work. Ask them if they can follow your exclamation, or if they have questions along the way. Don't just run through your field without looking up, and then at the end, notice that they have very confused looks on their faces, all right, slow down and ask along the way if they have questions. A couple of points to remember about communicating the content of your poster, one is talk to the people who are standing there, and not to the poster. And in this case, that would mean that if my poster were situated right here, that I need to be able to stand in this direction, and I need to be able to gesture with my right hand, so that my body stays open to the people with whom I'm interacting.
I don't won't to make the mistake of turning around, and putting my back to the people who are listening to me, so I don't won't to stand like this. Okay, you want to stand like this; you want to stay open to the audience. You want to stand up straight, get your arms down to your sides, loose and relax, shoulders down, chin up. You don't want to put your hands in your pocket, you don't want to put your hands behind your back, it looks like you're hiding something. You don't want to stand in the fig leaf position, with hands down to your sides, nice and relaxed. Great gestures, you see someone doing a gesture in that image, right. Think about where you can use your hands to reinforce the content, if you're talking about a ring of nodes, for example, or a particular section of a gel. If you point to information on the poster, point specifically, take along a silver pointer, take along a laser pointer, instead of just vaguely gesturing. If you'll notice in this figure, well, they can't tell which figure you're referring to. Point specifically; locate people. Try to show that you enjoy what you do. All right, do that by smiling, you do it with your voice; you convey a lot of energy and enthusiasm in your posture.
Engage them with eye contact, so that they know that you're looking at them, and getting feedback from them. And adjust your pacing, if you notice that somebody is giving you a confused look, then you want to slow down, stop, and say, did you follow my explanation of that particular result, ask. And if they didn't, be prepared to explain it in different terms. You might have to whip out a piece of paper and draw a picture. [Inaudible], you have to be flexible. But the goal is to help people walk away with an understanding of what you've done. So you want to be able to adjust your pacing, if somebody looks really bored, then you want to speed up, that's when you start leaping ahead through the poster. If they're just standing there with their arms crossed, and they don't look all that excited, they're kind of looking up at the ceiling, boom, that's when you jump right to the conclusions. So be prepared to make those adjustments. But you can't make those adjustments if you're not looking at the people with whom you're interacting. So at this point, I'm going to show a few examples, and I know that we don't have mics, I don't think at the workstations, I was planning to have you discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses in the slides, but instead I think I'll just flip through and point out a couple of the features, and then we'll have some time for questions.
So this particular poster is from someone working to characterize protein positions for future drug development. And this is actually a particularly good example of the way that color can be used for coherence. And by that, I mean if you notice, down in the bottom left, over here, there is two boxes right here. And the top one is green, and it says evolutionary trace. And the bottom one is pink, and it says geometric cashing [assumed spelling]. And if you notice, those same colors are used to group the information in the center that explains those methods in more detail. Up here, you see this is faintly outlined in green. And this side is faintly outlined in that same pink, that's a way to use color for coherence. This is also an example of that centered image, right; this draws your eye right to the middle of the poster. All of the important information is situated right in here. So this is one type of design, and again the person has used a sans-serif font. They have their names. They've got a content specific title. They have their institutional affiliates.
Flipping ahead, this is a different kind of color grouping, a little bit brighter color. And you'll see that this particular poster has images scattered throughout in each panel, which provides a nice balance. Nice, clean font, and acknowledgments, bottom right, for funding sources. Here we have a poster that's really designed to meet two different audiences needs. Two different problems and solutions are mapped out, one on the left side, and one on the right side, but again, there's some coherence provided in those gray backdrops, not too many colors, but some colors. This is unusual, in that the information for the authors is up here in the top right instead of situated directly under the title, that's a little bit different. Notice, that's they've designed a website, that's included on the poster. Lot's of white space here, notice that there's considerable white space, it doesn't feel too crowded. Here's another example of, I chose this one because it has the reverse out text, which many people don't think to do on a poster, usually they pick white backdrops, and use color for headings, but here they've provided a nice reverse text for the title bar, and down at the bottom, which is an interesting way to attract attention to your poster visually.
Again, a lot of white space, clear organizational structure, you know its top to bottom, left to right. And I realize you can't read the text, but under morphing [assumed spelling], that very top section, it says morphing transfers one target shape into another through transitions represented by averaging in the target shapes. And notice that word averaging is picked up as a cue word in the very next section below it, those are nice organizational cues that provide segways, so that people can track the logic of an argument. Now, I recently went to a Podiatry [assumed spelling] conference, and this was the kind of, this was more typical of the posters that I saw there. And here you can see that someone has not really taken the time to dwindle down the message, right, There's lots of text there, look at the background section. Small font, people were not pausing to read this poster, that's why I could take a picture of it because nobody was in front of it.
This is not a very good example of design, but I picked it out because it does have a good title, has the institutional affiliation at the top, it's got the centered image, nice photographs, something to keep in mind, you know, we become really quick to drag images into posters, but sometime images don't resize very well, sometimes you have to put them into Photoshop, and do some work to make them look nice. But these came out, I thought particularly well, very clear. And again, you see that they have included references, this is what I meant by using a smaller font size, you can get away with that on a poster. Here's another poster from that same podiatry conference. Can anyone see what the main problem is with this poster? It looks okay; it looks fine. Anybody?
The results are in an odd place.
Yeah, the results is in a kind of an odd place at the top right, and what's a little bit confusing I think about this poster, is that it's not really clear to tell which way you're suppose to read. I mean because we're familiar with the scientific method, we know that usually methods come after purpose, but we still have to pause momentarily to kind of make that distinction because there's nothing that distinguishes reading this way from reading across this line. So this is a poster where a little bit of revision in terms of grouping and color would have made it a little bit more clear that you're suppose to read on the horizontal access instead of on the vertical. And again remember that you want to try to keep images and results close to where they're referenced in the text. And here we have all of the results way down at the bottom far, far away, the rest, one reference is way up here, and another one is up here. So you want to try to keep those things close together. And again this particular poster has a decent title, but empty headings, right; those headings could be on just about any poster you looked at a conference.
So you want to try to be a little bit more specific. And then these are my last two examples. This was a student that I've worked with at Rice, who's doing some work using nano shells to introspective [assumed spelling] imaging for eliminating breast cancer. And he, this was his first draft, he emailed this to me as a PowerPoint file, and I took a look at it, and I said oh, my God, wild, look at all that text, nobody's going to read all that text. And he went back and revised it, and you'll notice that here there's less text, right, he switched a lot of the text, and particularly in the background session to bullets. And he added a reference section that he didn't have before. He's got his images captioned. He didn't have that in the first draft. But when I talked to him about this, I told him, there's still some things that need to be fixed. This was draft two. One is the image that you see in the top left is, it's showing that Nano particles are flat at different wavelengths, but that's sort of a bad image. It doesn't really go along with that panel on synthesis in modeling. And I asked him about it; I was like, why is this up there.
He was like; I just thought it looked cool. Well, it does look cool, but doesn't mean it belongs on your poster because it might just confuse somebody. And I also noted for example that he makes a comment on the first bullet background. Breast cancer means, remains a significant health issue. But that particular bullet just gets kind of lost, because it's not bolded like the others, it's not developed like any of the others in that list. So in some ways it minimizes the significance of the problem, of the population that they're trying to reach. So the point that I'm trying to make here is that posters take a lot of work. It's very hard to take a research project that is very dense and very complicated, and to represent it in a way that is simple and accessible to people who are not familiar with your particular study. It's a real challenge. It takes several days to put together a good poster, and even when you've put a lot of work into it, as I know, Christopher did, even in his first draft.
There, it requires multiple iterations, and it's always good if you can get another set of eyes to look at your poster, to catch the errors that you don't see, in order to put together a really strong poster. And then when you do go to a conference, I would recommend taking along printouts of the poster that you can hand out to people who are interested in them. You might want to take full versions of a paper, but you can in PowerPoint, print a slide of a poster that's scaled to fit, and eight and a half by eleven sheet, take along twenty of these. Make sure that your email address is on it, because you never know where it might lead. And at this point, I'd be glad to take questions if you have encountered challenges in putting together posters that you'd like me to comment on if you're having to design a poster in the near future, and you have some concerns. Any questions?
When you talked about if we have a paper that we're preparing down into a poster, should we keep in mind, like how organizational, should we just take a section, write on the paper, and make them section on our poster, or should we reorganized everything on the poster, or, you know, it doesn't just depend on what we're trying to say.
I think first it depend on the audience. First, you have to think about with whom you're trying to communicate. Again, if it's a really specific expert audience then you can probably pull a lot of the headings right out of the paper. The headings and journal articles tend to be fairly long though, so a lot of times you'll still have to trim words to incorporate those same headings. The structure should be similar to the paper, the microscale [assumed spelling] paper. In basic science posters, I usually recommend including the hypothesis that the study is designed around, but maybe leaving out specific aims because they tend to get very specific. And since the results that you're reporting will not address every single specific aim that you may have published in the paper, it's not worthwhile to include them. Or maybe only include the specific aims that match that results that you're including.
So you can use that original structure of the paper to some extent, but again it depends on your audience. If you have a general audience, let's say that you're taking your work to a conference where it's an interdisciplinary group, right, they're going to be physics there, they're going to be biochemists there, they're going to be engineers there. Then you're going to need headings that are maybe a little bit less specific, so that, or you might have to put method colon next to the method, so that they understand that that particular heading represents the method that you used. So you have make adjustments, but usually audience is the first consideration. Other questions? Okay, well I appreciate your time. There is a handout that contains a lot of the advice that I provided today. And my contact information is on that handout. If you're designing a poster, and you have a question, feel free to shoot me an email and I'll be glad to try to help you out.
©2008 The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
1515 Holcombe Blvd, Houston, TX 77030
1-800-392-1611 (USA) / 1-713-792-6161