My Poster Philosophy: How to Make a Good Conference Poster

To make your conference poster more engaging, it is helpful to include several points of entrance. No one will read your poster from beginning to end. No one. Therefore, offering small easy-to-digest parts and quick takeaways can improve the impact of your poster largely. However, making a good conference poster requires some serious investment, to make it pay off, use it to promote your research by giving it a digital afterlife.

Recently, at the MQIC2019, I submitted a poster highlighting some results of a lecture I held. It has been my sixth poster so far and again it attracted quite some attention. Amongst other positive response, it won the MQIC Poster Award as the best teaching poster. As people keep telling me that they like my posters, I share here my personal poster philosophy that lies at the hart of many of them.

“Don’t put too much text on your poster!”

Whether you have made a conference poster yourself or whether you just tried to make sense of posters by other people, you have probably come across the advice: “Don’t put too much text on your poster!” This advice is omnipresent, but in most cases it is not helpful at all. After all, we have to bring a very complex topic onto just a single page (posters should basically work in A4-format as well, if they are really good) and simplifying results is not what any researcher is trained for.

Even if we would succeed in reaching the bare minimum of text (despite the fact that many research topics don’t visualize very well) we will probably have tipped the balance already, and people will tell us that our poster is too shallow, does not say much or simplifies a complex topic too radically. All my posters (award winning or not) have received feedback early on that they contain “too much text”. This is feedback that is repeated over and over again, and that does not help at all. So what can we do to make our posters more engaging?

Create several points of entrance

This might sound counterintuitive, because we are so strongly influenced by the “Abstract – Research Question – Methods – Results” formula of scholarly papers. Splitting our results into small easy-to-digest parts will hardly ever come to our mind. Yet that is exactly why many research posters fail in delivering their message, because they press a well established mode of scholarly reasoning into a completely inappropriate form.

No one will read your poster from beginning to end. No one. If we have accepted this fact, our posters will become much better. When I stand in front of a poster during a poster presentation, I am usually overwhelmed by its physical size and the quantity of its content. What I am looking for is usually an entrance point. With most posters I jump to the conclusion or abstract right away. If the results are interesting enough, I try to understand what the poster is attempting to tell me. Yet even if it is most interesting, one will hardly have the time to read it from beginning to end right away.

My most recent poster that won the MQIC2019 Poster Award. There are four sections (the tree questions of the students, and the lecture design) that one might use as a point of entry or for a quick takeaway.

Use questions as headlines

The better half of my posters offer multiple points of entrance. They usually come in the shape of questions that are used as headlines. They attract the attention of the reader and allow them to answer the questions with the help of the text and pictures bellow. This empowers the reader to just look at a small subsection of the poster, find the answer to that question and leave feeling satisfied and/or curious. In the best case they will enter straight into a discussion with you or have a look at your poster later (in digital form) to really read it in its entirety.

Posters are a chance to connect

Whether you follow the poster philosophy presented here, or whether you follow a more traditional layout, you should always use posters as an opportunity to connect with other researchers. Put your contact data on your poster and your business cards next to it. Be presented during the poster session but also try to reach out to other poster authors covering similar topics or approaches. The central goal of any poster is to create awareness for you and your topic and to help you to connect with other researchers, so do not waste that opportunity easily.

A simpler layout from my poster “Zedler’s fehlende Seiten” presented at the Digital Humanities Day Leipzig (2018)

Give your poster a digital afterlife

Creating a good poster is neither a quick nor an easy task: You need to come up with a clear idea, you must set a reasonable scope and lastly some basic design skills will really help. I have created several posters already, still many of them clearly show that I did not invest the extra hours to maximise their potential. For example the two posters shown above differ largely when it comes to the time I invested in them.

If you do invest that extra time, make sure that you maximize the impact of your poster. When you have spent countless hours on a poster and only some 20-30 people have had a quick glance at it during the 30 minutes of a poster session, this can be terribly frustrating and discouraging. Therefore, promote it on social media in advance and/or after the conference.

At the conference (MQIC2017) maybe 50 people looked at this poster. Although I have just 200 followers on Twitter, more than 3.000 people saw it online.

Strangely enough, on the web people seem to have more time to read a poster in detail. From the comfort of an office desk one can indeed read a poster from beginning to end. There, it does not compete against dozens of other posters and many interesting people during a conference.

As a final step, upload your poster onto a website or a data repository so that they enter a digital afterlife. If your poster is really well done, put it into the publication section of your CV. No one will read all the articles you have published for an application, but if your poster is just a click away and beautifully tells of your engagement with your subject, it might even help you getting your next job.

If you want to have a look at my (good & bad) posters you can have a look at them in the data repository Share_IT or on Twitter. If you would like feedback on a poster or just connect with me, the quickest way to reach me is on Twitter  under  @Aw_Mueller.


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