Tips for better poster sessions

If you are in charge of organizing a poster session for your organization, you are in a position to dramatically improve the experience for both presenters and viewers. Below are some ideas.

Poster session at Society for Neuroscience's Annual Meeting

1. Make sure posters can be viewed without stooping

Poster sessions are best when posters are easy to read, so before your organization books a venue for the conference, ensure that the site has poster supports that allow the bottom part of a poster to be approximately chest height or higher. If venue doesn’t have those types of boards, find a different venue. Alternatively, modify the poster size specs (e.g., specify only landscape orientation, shrink dimensions) so that the posters can be situated high on the boards that exist. If you don’t do the above, people will have to stoop or even sit to read the lower portions. I’d say that 90% of the photographs of poster sessions on Twitter display this problem. Here’s another example of what you want to avoid.

Viewers stooping to read conference poster in dimly-lit room

2. If rooms are dark, provide lamps

It’s really hard to read small text in dimly lit rooms, so splurge on a fleet of battery-powered LED lamps that people can clip onto their posters. They make them for this very purpose. Get three per poster if you can. This can be a large bill for dozens or hundreds of posters but if you have a recurring meeting location and a place to store these lamps, make the investment.

3. Don’t turn poster sessions into lectures

Some meeting organizers apparently set up rooms where people present their posters to a large audience (example 12, 3). This is nuts. I.e., unless the screen covers the entire wall of the room, members of the audience simply cannot read anything on the poster. This trend should be stopped.

Presenting a poster to a seated audience (photograph from Val Nfonsam)

4. Don’t require banners, footers, or logos

Mandating graphics reduces the amount of area the presenter has. For example, the presenter below was required to include a 15″ banner containing clip art, conference name, and even a patronizing motivational slogan. Plus a footer with more branding! The required graphics also distract viewers from appreciating her graphics.

Conference poster with banner

5. Don’t require an abstract on the poster

A poster is an abstract so it doesn’t need another. It’s totally fine, of course, to ask for an abstract so that one can be included in a conference booklet. If your organization inertia just can’t let go of this silly tradition, at least put a 1-sentence limit on it.

6. Give a word count target

Perhaps the most valuable advice a society or organization can provide to presenters is a word limit. Once you know the poster size that will fit best on the boards that you have, estimate how many words could reasonably be crammed into a poster of font size was kept at, say, 30 pt. I’d recommend 500-1000 words. I strongly recommend providing an actual number, or range, rather than just saying “keep your word count low”. Most scientists are so proud of their work that they truly can’t fathom why 4,000 words isn’t “just right.” The reality is that the one poster in the room with barely any text will be the most popular — communicate that to attendees. Another way of providing the advice is to provide a minimum height for a letter once printed. Or you could say, “letters should be the size of your index finger’s fingernail or larger” (which will keep men especially brief, which is probably a good thing). The poster below has, approximately, twice as much text as recommended.

Word count of poster with too much text

7. Tell presenters to minimize use of acronyms

Many posters are so crammed full of acronyms and jargon that they are intelligible only to members of the same laboratory. That’s a bad poster for the general meeting attendee who is hoping to get exposed to some science outside of his/her focus.

8. Show examples of good posters, with commentary

Find a few good posters from previous meetings and provide some commentary about each poster so that attendees know what is good about them. Put these posters on the organization’s website.

9. Don’t provide templates

There are three reasons for this advice. (1) If you provide a template with lapses in aesthetics, color choice, font size, etc., everyone at the meeting will adhere to those lapses. An example is the photograph in #3, above — she had no choice but to use the awful template. (2) A template will force all attendees to produce similar posters. When every poster in the room looks the same, a little bit of everyone dies inside, like a school with dress code. Let people be creative. (3) Templates mandated for conferences are often PowerPoint files, which forces everyone to use Powerpoint instead of software that is actually designed for page layout. It’s true, of course, that almost everyone uses PowerPoint for posters, but your society can help break this dependency.

10. Provide guidance on a permanent web page

Whatever tips you end up providing to your members, make sure the advice resides on a stable web page on your professional organization’s main site, not on some page that changes each year.

11. Post judging criteria prior to meeting

If posters will be judged, tell attendees what criteria will be used. I.e., don’t surprise them. Post the forms that the judges will be using. And inform judges that the top award should not be automatically given to the poster with the smallest font or most charts. Seriously, judges have to stop doing that.

12. Sponsor a “people’s choice” award

Even if you have official judging, set up a box in the poster session room for attendees to nominate posters for a “most enjoyable/creative/novel” (or whatever) award. There’s always one at a conference and it would be nice to give them credit somehow, even if the judges didn’t give them any love.

13. Use mini posters

If you have a mixer or other social event at the start of a conference, provide colored pens and challenge attendees to sketch their research (or organism) onto sticker labels that they can then affix to their shirts. Attendees can then point to their mini-posters (e.g., during elevator pitch) and get people excited about visiting the actual poster. I’ve done workshops involving mini-posters at Swarthmore College, Sigma Xi meetings, NYAS, EPA, and DOE and they are effective and fun. This article gives details.

14. Protect posters from unwanted photography

Sometimes people would prefer that their unpublished results aren’t broadcast to the world on Twitter. But sometimes presenters would be fine with that. So provide a variety of stickers (or cards with pins) that presenters can attach to their posters. Here’s an example:

No photography stickers for poster session

15. Provide boxes for poster tubes

Tubes underneath all the posters look messy, plus are tripping hazards for people who might be coming from wine/beer mixer. There are just like the bins for umbrellas at restaurants and libraries.

Boxes for poster tubes at conference


Poster design overview • Section contents • DOs and DON’Ts • Bad example
Templates • Printing • Poster additions • Presenting • Resources