Repost: SfN Neuroblogging, Poster Tips!

Nov 10 2011 Published by under SFN Neuroblogging

Sci did a post last year on posters at SFN, the difference between a good poster, a better poster, and the best posters (I'm talking with regards to styling, not content, if you've got crappy content, Sci simply cannot help you). I've found that, over time, some of my opinions on posters have changed, while some have not. We're going to take advantage of those changes now.

So here we go: how to make a decent scientific poster (or at least one that isn't completely terrible). Starring SciC. I was going to put up some new examples with pics, but I may not have time this time. We'll see if I can edit them in.


There were 10s of thousands of posters at SFN every year. Of those, I will see 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've gotta see the newest things in my field, see who's working for who now and what they're working on. 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?

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. 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 (ok that was almost unnecessarily sexual...hehehe). 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.

Some examples:
Ok...: "Effects of oral ethanol self-administration on socialization and collaboration formation in humans: potential for low-dose positive effects"

Better: "Low dose oral EtOH enhances socialization and collaborative projects among scientists during a scientific conference"

What is the difference between these titles?

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 "low doses" and "positive effects on socialization and collaboration". But the low dose effects are in the last half.

A word on the colon: Sci used to be (and sometimes still is) a fan of using the colon in presentations, especially when you're trying to be very specific. But it often shows your title to be too long. If you can get away without it, you often end up with something a little more catchy.

The second title is better. Short, simple, to the point.

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 (I have seen things where a giant wasp covers the ENTIRETY of the poster in the back, um, ugh). 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:
This is where my tastes have changed a little since the last time I did a post on posters. I used to be a firm believer in color backgrounds, with a title that popped in white on a black background. I have since...really come to believe in the white background with white text, with color in the graphs. Of course it kind of depends on your data, if you have pretty pictures, they speak for themselves and you can keep it simple. If you tend to have a lot of bar graphs...less so. But I do think a black and white poster can be really well done if done right, or with some subtle color in the headings. For the right way to do color, I have to refer you to the ever excellent Better Posters blog
which is full of good advice on posters in general and on all aspects of poster design.

3) Introduction:
Brief. To the point. As an example observe below:
Good: It has been observed that the optimal environment in which scientists can socialize and form collaborations is found at many academic conferences. It is also a common feature of conferences that significant levels of ethanol (often at reduced price or free), are available during periods of socialization. Thus, levels of ethanol present often correlate with successful socialization attempts and collaborations. As yet, however, there have been no specific studies which address whether or not the presence of ethanol promotes socialization and collaboration specifically, or whether this is merely a correlation based on the presence of both at conferences. This study aims to observe the effects of free ethanol on socialization and collaborative at a given conference, using scientific observation of behavior and manipulations in the availability of ethanol.

Bad: It has been observed that socialization and collaborations attempts among scientists often occur at conferences. These conferences often provide ethanol self-administration opportunities at reduced cost to participants. Dr. Big Wig et al (2007) were the first to scientifically observe a correlation between ethanol presence and socialization, and the laboratory of Dr. Scary (2005) noted the high dose ethanol appears to inhibit useful collaboration. Additional studies outside of the scientific community have shown anxiolytic effects of ethanol which may contribute to possible social interaction (Boring et al, 1999, Redundant et al, 2006). As yet, however, a full study of dose-response curve ethanol as a function of ethanol price has yet to be undertaken. And blah de blah 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 (Sci, 2009). Thus, we have embarked on a study of the effects of ethanol of scientific gatherings, using dose and unit price as variables. We utilized observational studies and behavioral rankings of drunkeness and successful social interaction to construct models of unit price and dose of ethanol and effects on scientific socialization. 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. I can't say this enough: NOTHING BELOW 18pt FONT!!!

4) Dimensions:
They give you board sizes for a REASON. Do NOT overflow your board. It's the epitome of tacky, and shows that you were using the poster from another conference and were too lazy or cheap or didn't have enough new data to make another one (If you ARE lazy and/or cheap and/or don't have enough new data, make a good poster that is an average size, like 3'x5', and stick with it). Making a custom poster and using it over when it obviously doesn't fit on the board looks awful. Smaller than your board is just fine, as long as it's big enough to get your point across and not leave people squinting. Also, if you need THAT MUCH space to put that much stuff on a poster, just submit the dang thing to a journal, already!
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. Try your best to make sure your papers are NOT wrinkled.

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 ethanol on scientist social interactions" as a title. They DO want to see "Low-dose ethanol enhances the probability of successful scientific social interaction". 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. They should be a brief statement of your RESULTS, not a statement of your methods. You have a special section for your methods. Use it.
And I beg you, do not title your results sections "Experiment 1", "Experiment 2", and "Experiment 3". I think my eyes just about rolled out of my head by the third experiment. That has to be the worst possible idea for a figure title Sci has ever seen (and yes, I've seen it. A lot.).

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: These should be as short as you possibly can. Smaller font is ok, but DO NOT go below 18 please. Just state what the stars mean, and the n's. Short and sweet. And PLEASE, 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 per se, but if you have them, they 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: Sci likes 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 (American Society for Microbiology), 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. One year, I personally forgot my poster for SFN! Luckily, Mr. S 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. S, and sometimes your poster won't remotely be within driving distance. Thus, bring your poster, and keep an eye on it at all times. DO NOT check it. Check your luggage. Don't check your poster. I have heard many tales of woe on this point. 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. Some conferences are super casual, some of the bigger ones are not. And ladies, I know it shouldn't matter, but it does. Leave the cleavage at home. You want Dr. Dude to look at your DATA. Ideally, that's what he will be doing regardless of what you wear. But why tempt fate and a potentially really uncomfortable situation?


In other notes:
I love my cute shoes, but honestly, this is not the time. The SFN poster floor is thin carpet laid over concrete, and you will be 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, in under 3 minutes if you possibly can. If you're like me and had 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. Sci is now at the point where my boss may not even be at the meeting, they know I'm gonna be just fine. But for the first time, having a senior lab person around can be a comfort.

Bring a bottle of water! Also coffee if it's in the morning. You'll need it. And if you have nice friends, have one of them stop by halfway through to bring relief supplies. If you poster generates good traffic (the huge traffic generated by posters from Sci's grad lab is a point of pride), you may not be able to step away. The wonderful research assistant who brought Sci that bottle of water halfway through my last SFN has my ETERNAL gratitude.
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 or a lit point that is important, 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.

And that's what I've got for now. I will try to come back and add in some poster examples (for example, you need not always have figure titles, many people don't). But that depends on how much time Sci has before she is OFF!! OFF TO SFN!!

One response so far

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    Nice tips. Very comprehensive.

    My field (crystallography) tends to have very large, colorful figures which make text incredibly difficult to incorporate. I personally prefer a paragraph each for intro and conclusion and leave the heavy lifting for the figures, though it makes standing by your poster a must.

    As I was reading I was going to make a comment about the shoes but you beat me to it. I'm pretty sure that women's dress shoes were designed as a torture device perhaps by the same people who refuse to put functional pockets in women's dress pants. It may be one of those subversive cultural cues that are intended to reinforce the glass ceiling. I am thankfully short and my dress pants tend to be long so I have doffed the shoes on more one occasion without anyone noticing.

    I would add the suggestion that making arrangements with PIs or friends prior to you poster to provide you with a steady stream of that free EtOH in case you are swamped. Though also make arrangements for them to take away the empties because a pile of empty beer glasses doesn't do anything to improve your reputation.