Of Powerpoints and Posters

Nov 20 2008 Published by under Academia

Yesterday, a very sleep-deprived (and possibly hungover) Sci finally dragged herself back to reality. SFN is a great opportunity to meet many, many people (most of whom will not remember me and I will be introducing myself AGAIN. I can't even get grad students to remember me!), and to see some really cool stuff, but it can also be hugely overwhelming. Rank upon rank of posters, row upon row of vendors giving away free stuff (I never did find the Jackson Lab booth that was giving away little magnetic stuffed mice...), it all makes Sci's head swim after the first few minutes.
So I get back, I relax a little. And then I check my Google Reader: 400 posts. *yipe!yipe!yipe!* Sci went to bed.
But now I'm REALLY back, and trying to remember all the post ideas I had in my head while I was perusing the many many posters and slide presentations and bars. And the one that stuck in my head the most: posters.
Outside sources have told me that I give both a good seminar and a good poster. I am proud to say that traffic at my poster this year ended up a good bit higher than expected. I have pleased the advisor gods: they bought me a drink.
So through my years of grad poster and presentation giving, I've seen the best and the worst. You all may recall my post on powerpoint presentations, what to do, and especially what NOT to do. Here, I present presentations: the poster edition.

There were 10s of thousands of posters at SFN this year. Of those, I saw perhaps 100 over a period of 4 days. The question becomes, how did I pick those 100?
Well, obviously, I'm going to see those that are relevant to my field. Time was, I could browse a little, see something cool on vision or memory processing or hormonal control. But now, in the words of one of my fellow grad lemmings "I have my dissertation blinders on". I'm positively fixated. I cannot say that that is a good thing. I will love the day when I'm no longer obsessed and can look around, get some ideas on stuff that might be peripheral, but could spark some truly good ideas. Still, there must have been at least 1,000 posters there directly or peripherally related to stuff that my lab is doing.
So once you have your topics narrowed down, what is the difference between a poster I will look at, yawn, and drag myself away from in search of a latte and one that will have me introducing myself to the presenter and peppering them with feedback and questions?
Clearly, I'm not going to talk about content here. I assume you are putting your best stuff out there, or at least the stuff you want people to look at before you bang it into shape for a journal. This is more about presentation style.
1) The title: I know it sounds like a sell-out, but a good title can really make for some traffic. A good title needs to be informative, catchy, and not too terribly long (sadly, my poster this year had none of these things, but that is partially because I was stuck with the subject material).
Let's be honest, how many people are going to go through the THOUSANDS of posters that could potentially be on their itinerary and read each abstract? I think I tried to do this my first SFN, and it was a horribly time consuming and soul-sucking idea. So the meat of your information needs to be in your title. You can't try and save the little nugget of gold for the end of your 500 word abstract, you need to make sure that gold is liquified and sprayed all OVER your title.
I'll tell you, by then end of my itinerary formation, I'm looking at the author (usually the last author to see if it's a Big Fish), and about the first five words of the title. If I don't see something in there to make me look again, I'm moving on. Let's show a few examples (picked from a randomly opened page of my itinerary):
Good: "Simultaneous electrophysiological and electrochemical measurements reveal coordinated dopamine release and neural activity in the nucleus accumbens during cocaine self-administration in rats"
Better: "Does dysregulated drug-self administration represent a failure of stimulus control?"
Best: "Drug choice is a function of environmental context: a cocaine- and heroin self-administration study in rats with double catheters"
What is the difference between these titles? They are good studies. However, unless I was IN the field of the first poster, and knew the authors, I wouldn't be rushing over (though I did go, and the poster was GREAT).
The issues: the first title is too long. It is also in the passive voice. And the meat of it, the cool changes they saw, is entirely stuck away in the last half. The key phrases for this study were "coordinated dopamine release and neural activity", and "cocaine self-administration". But instead, the first half of the title was taken up with long words about the methods. We all like methods, don't get me wrong. And there is a catch there in that they were doing electrophys and electrochem at the same time, and that's badass. But if they had put the last half of that title first, it would have been much more catchy.
The second title here is good in that it's short, and it asks a question. People like to see that, it makes them ponder the possibilities of what they're going to find. But it's too vague. Is it an electrophys experiment? Behavior? Both? What on earth do they MEAN by "dysregulated self-administration"? There are fifty different ways to get that to occur, and they will all have a big impact on your findings. Still, this is a poster I would go to, and partially just to see what they meant.
The third title here is one I like. The first half is the take-home message: "drug choice is a function of environmental context". No way! This will completely change a lot of the drug self-administration methods in my field. The line has punch, none of the 'it may be the case', 'it might', 'it could possibly', 'on a good day'. No, it IS. This has the ring of challenge to it. Of course we all know it's a hypothesis, and that something could go wrong and it could be disproven. But it makes me want to ask you about it, to have you go through the poster and talk to me. Second half "cocaine and heroin self-admin with double lumen catheters". Good method choice, avoids the issue of combining coke and heroin into speedball and forming a potential compound in the syringe. The second half is informative without getting too wordy. Me likey.
A note on school logos: Use a logo if your school provides one, and a department logo either below or on the other side if you have one of those. However, the logo should NOT dominate your poster title. Also, use the official logo. I do not want to see a super huge cartoon hornet, an enormous warthog, or whatever else you are unfortunate enough to have as your mascot. Keep it simple and non-tacky, please.
2) Color: I have a knack for poster color. I actually had my university ask me if they could use one of the formats I developed as an official format for the uni! Many universities have official color schemes and designs that you have the option of using so you don't have to play the Russian Roulette of matching and hoping it comes back ok from the printer. Some labs even have their own color scheme, so if you're all showing next to each other, you look big and impressive. Me, I'm an individualist.
First off, there is NOTHING more boring than black and white. Most papers are in black and white (unless you are lucky enough to do things that produce pretty pictures as data, I am not), so we see plenty of that. Posters are the time when you can let your data pop. Seriously, if I had to pass another poster in just black and white...eww. It was just unfortunate. I like black and red, with black as control and red as your variable group for bar graphs. If you need more than one color, putting things on a black background makes them show, and then you can use some truly great colors that will really show off your data.
I tend to like a background for the title that really POPS, with the rest of the poster in a lighter color, and the graphs and text boxes in white. But I've done black backgrounds, too, and the effect is very striking. However, be careful to make sure your text sticks out of your background or textbox! Red on blue is NEVER a good idea. Yellow on blue similar. And NO NEON. I do not appreciate having to fight seizures while look at your poster. Subtle color can be attractive and make your data pop without hurting the delicate aging eyes of Big Fish profs.
3) Introduction: Brief. To the point. As an example observe below:
Good: It has been observed that not all presenters are aware of the deficiencies and pitfalls of poster presentation and development. Even with modern printing and design technologies, posters can be lackluster, ugly, and unclear in their presentation of data. Thus, we have embarked on a description of correct and incorrect poster presentation strategies, to clarify the large field of poster presentation, and aid those who may be having difficulty presenting their data in a clear and concise manner.
Bad: It has been observed that not all presenters are aware of the deficiencies and pitfalls of poster presentation and development. There are now modern technologies, such as distance poster printing, that allow for posters to be designed well and carefully over long periods of time. Dr. Big Wig and his lab (2008) have found that, despite new poster-creating technologies, poster presenters often fail to take advantage of them, using little color, small graphs, and ridiculously small font. Dr. Scary and colleagues (2007) have also found that presenters often do not know what elements should be included in a poster. And blah deblah and stuff I don't feel like making up right now because this poster blog post is taking a lot longer than I anticipated and dang it better go in a carnival or something to make it worthwhile. Thus, we have embarked on a description of correct and incorrect poster presentation strategies, to clarify the large field of poster presentation, and aid those who may be having difficulty presenting their data in a clear and concise manner. We utilized graph analysis, font size definitions, powerpoint, and Adobe Illustrator to demonsrate the various areas of poster development in the modern age. We analyzed the heck out of it and used lots of stats, it's really impressive, honest.
The second one is FAR too long. Use citations if you need them, but never go below 28 font. Also, this is a poster. Not a paper. There is no need to review the literature or put it in the context of the Grand Scheme of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That is YOUR job when you're up there talking about your poster. And that will come out when you publish the data. This is more of a data snippet, your freshest stuff and the stuff you want feedback on. No need to harp on what everyone else is saying about it.
3) Font and Size: NEVER, EVER put any text smaller than 18 pt on your poster. I'm including figure legends in that. NEVER. If you have to make things 12 pt, you have too much text, and that's all I can say about that.
4) Dimensions: They give you board sizes for a REASON. Do NOT overflow your board. It's the epitome of tacky. Smaller than your board is just fine, as long as it's big enough to get your point across and not leave people squinting. I'm a big fan of the 3' x 5' poster. But overflowing is never an option. If you cannot get yours printed out all expensive, make sure you're posting on contrasting colored paper as your background (please make it match, we don't need rainbows up there), and that everything is neat and well-spaced. It goes a long way.
5) Figure titles and Legends: I asked my friend and fellow grad lemming (to whom I owe a lot on this post) to come up with the WORST possible figure title. She gave me this:
"In Vitro Analysis of Activation and Repression Activity by Mutant Proteins as viewed by Electrophoretical Mobility Shift Assays at Two Sites"
Ouchie. Hurts just looking at it, huh? Your figure titles are important things. Don't just state a method. No one ever wants to see "effects of X drug in Y mice" as a title. They DO want to see "Mice Y are affected differentially by drug X!" You have very little space for conclusions, and you want your main effects to boil down to bullet points. Your figure titles should be concise and reflect the graph's finding.
A note on capitalization: It is not Necessary to Capitalize all Words of Import. Either Capitalize Them All, or capitalize none. Otherwise, it looks like you have problems controlling your shift key.
Figure legends: Please run the preliminary stats on your stuff! Avoiding it just out of laziness shows you don't care. If it's not significant yet, it's not, and that's ok, give us a p value so we know how close you are. And tell us what you ran, and put stars up there if you've got something. It focuses the attention. Figure legends aren't necessary, but should be descriptive of what you did, providing the numbers and analysis as needed.
6) Font: I've heard two schools of thought on font. Some say that sans-serif is the only way to go, and that serif hurts the eyes. Others says that serif is better for paragraphs. One thing I know for certain: use the same font on the whole poster. I do not need to see how much you like century gothic and comic sans and how you like lucidia narrow.
7) Conclusions/Discussion/Wrapping it all up: If your figure titles are good and strong, you should be able to simply state your findings in some bullet points and launch into the meaning. I highly recommend bullet points for your conclusions, when people are reading poster after poster, it gives them something clear to focus on. A little speculation is good, also maybe something on where you're going next if you have the space. If you don't, include it in your spiel.
Models: I like these. Especially if you are working on something a little difficult, like circuitry or cell firing to different regions, in areas that not all people might be familiar with. It's also a good place to add some color and interest. These are best placed with your conclusions/summary/discussion, especially if they can really elucidate your hypothesis. A picture is worth a thousand words, and we all know you don't want to waste words on a poster. And people will remember your model a lot more than they will remember some random sentance describing the findings. Plus, when you're trying to describe something, it's great to have something to point at.
8) You and your poster: Yay! Your poster is done! It's printed and pretty.
On showing up: So I didn't know this, but fellow grad lemming tells me that, at ASM, if you don't show up to present your poster, you can't present again for FOUR YEARS. This means, if you forget your poster, you are in big doo-doo. I personally forgot my poster for SFN! Luckily, Mr. SiT is truly a fantastic human being, and drove ALL the way back to get it, and had it to me before 8am the next morning, along with a large bottle of bourbon for my panic attack. But we don't all have Mr. SiT, and sometimes your poster won't remotely be within driving distance. Thus, bring your poster, and keep an eye on it at all times. But also bring a copy on a jump drive, ready to go. Worst case scenario, find your nearest Kinko's.
Get there early. Set up, and then go wander off if you want. Showing up late is icky. As is taking your poster down and leaving early. You signed up for this time, stay for it.
On what to wear: When your poster is in a color, try to wear something contrasting. Otherwise it kind of looks like you dressed to match your poster, and that's a little weird. I've found that, the further up your are on the ladder, the less you have to care how you dress. A first year grad student is wearing a suit and tie, and a 5th year is maybe wearing dress pants and a nice top. A postdoc is wearing khakis, and a prof is wearing jeans. Really, it's all up to you, but I find that dressing up a little gives me confidence, and makes me feel professional.
In other notes: I love my cute shoes, but honestly, this is not the time. The SFN poster floor was thin carpet laid over concrete, and I was standing on it for FOUR HOURS. If you want to wear your cute shoes, go for it, but I recommend bringing a pair of flats along in case. Your legs and feet will thank you.
On presenting: If it's your first time, practice practice practice! Make sure you know your take-home message, make sure you can describe your techniques clearly. If you're like me and have an awesome lab, a senior person will be standing with you for most of your first time, watching you like a hawk and making sure you don't drown. I'm at the point now where my advisor stopped by for about a minute, saw I was busy, and walked on. I was proud, it was kind of like a rite of passage.
Bring a bottle of water! Also coffee if it's in the morning. You'll need it.
Someone will ask you a question you can't answer. That's ok. Good answers for times like this include "I don't actually know, but I'd love to try that experiment", "that's a great idea", and "I'm afraid I don't know, would you be willing to speculate?" Nobody expects you to know everything.
When someone points out something wrong, take notes! Get their feedback, and their contact information if you can. It can hurt to get shot down in public, but in the end, your work will be the better for it. And making those contacts is ALWAYS a good thing. Some people leave up a piece of paper for people to write down their contact information.
So that's what I have, and this post is long enough. Does anyone else have input? Anything on posters you REALLY hate? Anything you really loved? What makes or breaks a poster? I'd love to hear it!

12 responses so far

  • Nice post... though I have to disagree with your color schemes. Black + Red is just not a good idea...ever been to seminar where the speaker uses red text on a black background (or vice versa)? It's UNREADABLE. Easier on a poster but still. I am told by people who are losing some of visual acuity as they age that this color scheme is really impossible. So if you want the greybeards to SEE your poster, try some other scheme.
    I also gave a poster a few years ago and got some great feedback from a PI who was in a peripherally related field...and who was also red-green colorblind. Although I wasn't using a lot of red against green on my poster he pointed out that a lot of visual spectrum is affected (not just RG specifically). There are some great websites with instructions on how to optimize your settings in ANY graphic software (photoshop, PP, illustrator, etc.) to adjust for this.
    I will try to find the website and post again.
    Great suggestions on content!

  • Scicurious says:

    Oh, I'm not talking red and black ALL over. Yikes, no. I had bar graphs, and the control bar was black, and the variable bar was red, and both were against a white background. I tend to put ALL of my graphs against a white background, even if I have a black poster, I put in white boxes. More contrast is easier to read.
    Yes! Optimizing color settings would be awesome! I know people in my lab were frustrated beyond belief over this.

  • locklin says:

    Great post! I'm saving the text to re-read before VSS next spring.

  • abbie says:

    The thin carpet over concrete, ouch. I was wearing flats and I still felt that I was balancing on rail spikes and they were slowly being driven into my heels by gravity over my four hour time slot. SFN, let's do better next year.

  • Eric Lund says:

    NEVER, EVER put any text smaller than 18 pt on your poster.
    That remark needs to be shouted from the rooftops:
    This is actually one of the criteria I use in determining whether to look at a poster. If I can't read a poster without having to stand so close as to become intimate with the presenter, I'm not going to read it. I'm regularly amazed at conferences how many of my fellow scientists don't get this.
    You didn't say anything about designs or pictures in the background. Avoid them. Getting text that shows up against your background color is hard enough; getting text of a uniform color to show up against a background design/picture is exponentially harder.
    Some people in my field bring along 11x17 reproductions of their poster for people to look at later. I'm ambivalent about the idea: it can be helpful if your poster is early in the meeting, so that people who think of questions to ask later can find you to ask them, but it's not really a substitute for a (p)reprint of your paper. If you have reprints related to your poster, by all means bring them, as it gives me something to read on the plane ride home.

  • Novathecat says:

    We have to put a legalese disclaimer on all our posters, so I put it in a tiny font on the bottom right corner so it does not take up too much space or detract from the message. This is the one exception I would give to the big font rule.

  • Dr. John says:

    Good points all, but I have to offer some slight dissent on a couple of points. First, regarding color, there are two general schools of thought on this. One group says "color - yay!", as you espouse. However, some people believe that you only include the bare minimum color necessary to accurately convey the data. In my experience, which category people fall into largely depends on what their training was as a grad student or undergrad. It's a choice where you're going to bug some people no matter what you do.
    For title, it's really a question of who do you want to attract? Of the three titles you presented, I'd say the first is the best by an enormous margin. But, I'm an electrophysiologist, and we always geek out over cool methods. Seriously, eveyone in our group will go to a poster just because it has sexy methods. On the other hand, a dyed-in-the-wool behaviorist will HATE anything more than a bland descriptive of the results. So for title, I have to say that you craft it with your desired audience in mind.
    About showing up, let me add: if you're anything other than a first- or second-year grad student, STAY THE WHOLE FOUR HOURS! Yes, I know you're not required to, strictly speaking. Yes, I know it sucks, you're tired, you have to pee, and standing on the concrete floor is painful after the first hour. But those of us coming to your poster have lots of other posters to see, and it's a damn big room to make our way across. The truth is, most of us aren't even looking at what you assigned time block is, we're only looking at morning or afternoon. So even if your assigned block is 11:00-12:00, be there at 8:00. Those of us who come by early will appreciate it. And, to be honest, it's really kind of expected of you.

  • Nice post, SciC! One thing I would add is in relation to typefaces. Using a nice humanist sans serif in a large size for titles of your poster sections and figure legends is very nice. This can make a very nice contrast to the body text, which will be much more readable in an old-style serif font, such as Adobe Caslon or a Garamond.

  • Scicurious says:

    Greetings, Comrade! I have actually never heard of those fonts, I generally use Times New Roman for a serif font, and Arial or Calibri for sans serif.
    And SciC is funny, every time I look at it, I think it sounds like "Sike!", and then I think I must appear REALLY 80's. It's my scrunchies and oversize neon shirts, isn't it...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    as Isis is to shoes, PP is to fonts....

  • Times New Roman is a decent typeface, but it is so overused that it just bores the shit out of me. I am actually glad that NIH allows Georgia in grant applications, as Georgia has a little more character than Times New Roman. As far as Arial, it is a disgusting rip-off of Helvetica, and I am enraged that it is the only sans that NIH allows in grant applications.
    A humanist sans that I really love is Syntax, but it does not have a complete set of Greek characters and symbols, so it is a non-starter for scientific purposes.

  • who's yer daddy says:

    A few comments:
    On fonts: Traditional newspaper layout has sans serif fonts for the headlines and serif fonts for the body copy. Georgia and Verdana (serif and sans serif, respectively) were developed to be especially readable on computer displays. They scale well from very small to very large with excellent readability.
    On design: I, myself, have had my PowerPoint design adopted as a standard for my college, so it is clear that SciC has inherited this talent.
    You did not really make SiT drive all the way back to get your poster!