Five Keys to a Compelling Research Poster

After months or years of research you want to get feedback and recognition for your work. While you're at it, you'd like to prepare for writing a peer-reviewed journal article, so you decide to publish your findings in a poster session. This is an effective way to share your research with a number of people, get initial feedback, and prepare for sharing your research with a larger scholarly audience.

Before you write the content of your poster, outline what you hope to achieve with your poster. A good poster can stand on its own, sharing with the reader your key findings and why they're important to the body of knowledge. Your reader should be able to see the problem you explored, how you chose to research it, and the significance of what you found. The challenge is to include everything your readers need to understand and respond to your work, without overwhelming them with unnecessary information or poor design.

1. Find your story

Your research is a story, and you must keep your readers in mind as you tell it. Your readers will have a limited amount of time; they won’t want to spend 20 minutes wading through a comprehensive background to your research question and the minutiae of your methods!

To help decide what to include on your poster, consider your research conclusions and identify the information necessary to get your readers there. Share your most significant findings—not the setup and results of every trial! As you build the narrative of your story and consider adding more information, ask yourself, “Does this help tell my story?” If it's not absolutely necessary to your narrative, leave it out!

2. Minimize and organize your text

While you're writing and editing each section of your poster, continue to think of your readers. To make your text more readable, reduce blocks of text to the most important points. Readability is paramount! The following statement uses 26 words to communicate the goals of the research, and even then, the research question isn't clear. The readers may not even notice this research question at the end of a paragraph:

This research aims to examine whether a subtle reminder of power increases the probability that a person will use racial stereotypes when making criminal judgments.

Reducing the text to the most important ideas and adding emphasis makes the question stand out:

Research Question: Do power primes lead to increased stereotyping in criminal judgments?

The reader can now easily identify the research question and use it to understand the rest of the poster.

Using bullet points is another effective way to make your text reader-friendly. Convert paragraphs describing your methods or findings to bulleted lists of your procedure or most important results and ensure they’re easy to read!

Why blocks are bad
Blocks of text are not the best way to present your work on a poster. For the reader, it becomes difficult to comprehend and keep reading, especially when the sentences are long, have lots of prepositions, or have a complicated structure (like this sentence!). If you put an important topic or item, such as a research question, hypotheses, or key findings at the end of a paragraph like this, chances are good that your reader will have stopped reading or otherwise missed important information as they skimmed your poster.
Why bullets are better
  • Easy to identify important ideas
  • Add visual cues (and interest) to your text
    • Subordinate ideas are secondary
    • White space is included effortlessly
  • Don't need to be complete sentences

3. Let Images do the Talking

We’ve all heard the oft-quoted aphorism “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It's true for research posters. A well-chosen figure or graph (and the accompanying caption) shows your reader what’s important about what you found and moves your story along. Graphic elements of a poster are usually the first thing that readers of a poster look at, so pick the most significant (and visually interesting) images to help tell your story.

Present your findings simply and clearly. If you use a graph, the findings should be easy to see after a few seconds (check out the two graphs below). If your readers need more than twenty seconds to understand your findings and their significance, you haven’t effectively told your story.

A cluttered graph
This graph includes too much information, some of the bars are obscured, and it's difficult to see which numbers belong to which bars.
Image from statsblog.com
An easy-to read graph
This graph organizes the data for each person, making it easy to compare the differences between the regions. Color-coding the region bars would further improve readability.
Image from statsblog.com

4. Organize your poster

The flow of a research poster
Information flows from left to right, top to bottom.

Consider the overall flow of your poster as you put the sections in order.

A clear structure and well-organized poster helps your reader understand—and see the value of—your research. Information flows from left to right, top to bottom, whether you use a three- or four-column design. Organizing your information accordingly helps your readers focus their attention quickly on what's important, and they can move from one section to another  understanding the main points of every section.

5. Make Your Design Count

Use colors judiciously: Limit yourself to two or three main colors (you can't go wrong with scarlet and cream). Use neutral background colors; otherwise the text is difficult to read.

Balance text and image (keeping the flow from one section to the next in mind), so that you don’t have blocks of text exclusively in one column and images in another.

Avoid cramming your poster with information. Aim for 20% of your poster to be text, 40% images (graphs, tables, and pictures), and 40% white space. That may seem like a lot of white space, but your reader’s eye needs room to rest on the most important points. Just as a long paragraph is heavy and difficult to read through, the whole poster needs to give the eye space to move from one point to the next, landing on the most important information. If you must use text, set it with 20-point font and use reader-friendly line spacing.

Additional resources

Scientific Posters:The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Reinhard Laubenbacher

Ten Simple Rules for a Good Poster Presentation by Thomas C Erren and Philip E Bourne

Designing Conference Posters by Colin Purrington

Tutorial: Advancing Poster Presentation Skills by H. Adam Steinberg

After you’ve prepared your poster, get ready to present at a poster session.