Here are some rough guidelines on what to include in each section of a scientific poster and how to pitch that content. The word-count guesses are for a poster that is approximately 3 x 4′, so adjust accordingly if your poster is a different size. Names of the section headings are somewhat flexible, too, especially if you’re not crafting a science poster.
Title [1 or 2 lines]
Should briefly convey the interesting issue, the general experimental approach, and the system (e.g., organism); needs to be catchy in order to reel in passersby who are trying to avoid boring interactions, a real danger at conferences just like in the real world. [approximately 1-2 lines]
Do not include an abstract on a poster (a poster is an abstract of your research, so having two summaries is a silly waste of valuable poster space). Some meetings require an abstract, of course, and if that’s the case be as brief as possible (aim for a one-sentence abstract). But if you can get away with it, just omit the section —there are rarely poster police at conferences, and they’re not going to tase you if your poster lacks an abstract.
Introduction [~200 words]
Write this section to target an intelligent person who is not in your field. Assume they don’t know your study organism at all, and assume they are predisposed to find your topic unimportant. E.g., if your an astronomer, imagine a visitor who has a degree in biology or mathematics. Quickly (first sentence or two) get your viewer interested in the issue or question that drove you to take up the project in the first place. Use the absolute minimum of background information, definitions, and acronyms (all of which are boring). Place your issue in the context of published, primary literature. Pitch an interesting, novel hypothesis, then describe (briefly) the experimental approach that can test your hypothesis. Please note that “X has never been studied before” or “my mentor gave me this project” are lame reasons for doing something, even if true. Also note: unlike a manuscript for a journal, the introduction of a poster is a wonderful place to display a photograph or illustration that visually communicates some aspect of your research question. A nice image can draw people in even if you look boring or have a boring poster title.
Materials and methods [~200 words]
Briefly describe experimental equipment and procedure, but not with the detail used for a manuscript. Use figures and flow charts to illustrate experimental design if possible. Include a photograph or labeled drawing of organism or setup. Mention statistical analyses that were used and how they allowed you to address hypothesis.
Results [~200 words, not counting figure legends]
First, mention whether your experiment procedure actually worked (e.g., “90% of the birds survived the brainectomy”. In same paragraph, briefly describe qualitative and descriptive results (e.g., “surviving birds appeared to be lethargic and had difficulty locating seeds”) to give a more personal tone to your poster. In second paragraph, begin presentation of data analysis that more specifically addresses your hypothesis. Refer to supporting charts or images. Provide engaging figure legends that could stand on their own (i.e., could convey some point to reader if viewer skipped all other sections, which they will do). Opt for figures over tables whenever possible. This is always the largest section (except if you have no data).
Conclusions [~200 words]
Remind the reader, without sounding like you are reminding the reader, of the major result and quickly state whether your hypothesis was supported. Try to convince the visitor why the outcome is interesting (assume they’ve skipped the Introduction). State the relevance of your findings to other published work. A relevance to real organisms in the real world. Add sentence on future directions of research.
Literature cited [~5 citations]
Follow format described by your main society exactly. Grammar and typography police at conferences will find even minor infractions (trust me), and those types of people might be carrying tasers.
Acknowledgments [~40 words]
Thank individuals for specific contributions (equipment donation, statistical advice, laboratory assistance, comments on earlier versions of the poster). Mention who has provided funding. Do not list people’s titles (e.g., write Colin Purrington not Dr Purrington). Also include in this section disclosures for any conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment (more info). If you have a lot of conflicts, put them all in a Conflicts section.
Further information [~20 words]
If you haven’t botched the content and tone, some visitors will want to know more about your research, so provide your e-mail address, your web site address, or perhaps a URL where they can download a PDF version of the poster or relevant data. If you provide a URL, format it so it’s not blued or underlined. Full disclosure: I made up this section, so if your mentor thinks it’s silly, that’s why.
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