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How to prepare an effective research poster

Being asked to give a poster presentation can be exciting, and you need not be daunted by the prospect of working out how to prepare one. As Lucia Hartigan and colleagues explain, many options are available

The long nights are over, the statistics have been run, the abstract has been written, and the email pops into your inbox: “Congratulations! You have been accepted for a poster presentation.”

All that work has been worthwhile. Your consultant congratulates you and your colleagues are envious of your having a legitimate excuse to go away for a couple of days, but now you have to work out how to prepare a poster. Do not despair, for you have many options.

Firstly, take this seriously. A poster is not a consolation prize for not being given an oral presentation. This is your chance to show your work, talk to others in the field, and, if you are lucky, to pick up pointers from experts. Given that just 45% of published abstracts end in a full paper,[1] this may be your only chance to get your work out there, so put some effort into it. If you don’t have access to the services of a graphic designer, then some work will be entailed as it normally takes us a full day to prepare the layout of a poster. If you are lucky enough to have help from a graphic designer, then you will need to check that the data are correct before it is sent to the printer. After all, it will be your name on the poster, not the graphic designer’s.

Secondly, check the details of the requirements. What size poster should you have? If it is too big, it may look arrogant. If it is too small, then it may seem too modest and self effacing. Should it be portrait or landscape? Different meetings have different requirements. Some may stay with traditional paper posters, so you need to factor in printing. Others present them electronically, but may have a deadline by which you need to have uploaded the poster. When planning a meeting the organisers work out how many poster boards there will be and then the numbers, so follow their requirements and read the small print.

Then make a template. It can be tempting to “borrow” a poster template from someone else, and this may buy you some time, but it is important to check what page set-up and size have been selected for the template. If it’s meant for an A2 size and you wish to print your poster on A0 paper, then the stretching may lead to pixillation, which would not look good.

Next, think about your layout. Use text boxes to cover the following areas: title (with authors, institution, and logo), background, methods, results, and conclusions. Check that the text boxes are aligned by using gridlines, and justify your text. Use different colours for titles, and make sure you can read the title from 3 metres away. Some people will put their abstract in a separate box in the top right hand corner underneath the title, and then expand a little in the other areas. That is fine, so long as you follow the golden rule of writing a poster: do not include too much text. One study showed that less than 5% of conference attendees visit posters at meetings and that few ask useful questions.[2] The same research found that, in addition to the scientific content of a poster, the factors that increase visual appeal include pictures, graphs, and a limited use of words.[2] The ideal number of words seems to be between 300 and 400 per square metre.

Now make it look pretty and eye catching, and use lots of graphics. Outline text boxes or fill them with a different colour. If you can present the data using a graph, image, or figures rather than text, then do so, as this will add visual appeal. If you want to put a picture in the background, and it is appropriate to do so, fade the image so that it does not distract from the content.

Fonts are important. Check whether the meeting has set criteria for fonts; if they have, then follow them. You do not want to stand out for the wrong reason. If there are no specified criteria, then the title should be in point size 72-84, depending on the size of the poster. The authors’ names should be either the same size, but in italics, or else a couple of sizes smaller.

If you are including the hospital logo, don’t take a picture that will not size up properly when enlarged. Instead, obtain a proper copy from the hospital administrators.

References can be in small writing. No one is likely to read them, and you are including them only to remind yourself what you learnt in the literature review. One intriguing possibility is the use of a trigger image to link the poster to online content.[3]

Finally, there are also things you should not do. Don’t leave your figures unlabelled, include spelling errors, use abbreviations without an explanation, or go outside the boundaries of the poster. Don’t be ashamed that you “only” have a poster. At a good meeting you may find that the comments from passers by are an amazing peer review. We have presented at meetings where world experts have given feedback, and with that feedback we have written the paper on the flight home.

Competing interests: We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

References Scherer RW, Langenberg P, von Elm E. Full publication of results initially presented in abstracts. Cochrane Database Syst Rev   2007;2:MR000005. Goodhand JR, Giles CL, Wahed M, Irving PM, Langmead L, Rampton DS. Poster presentations at medical conferences: an effective way of disseminating research? Clin Med  2011;1:138-41. Atherton S, Javed M, Webster S, Hemington-Gorse S. Use of a mobile device app: a potential new tool for poster presentations and surgical education. J Visual Comm Med  2013;36(1-2):6-10. Lucia Hartigan registrar  National Maternity Hospital, Dublin Fionnuala Mone fellow in maternal fetal medicine  National Maternity Hospital, Dublin Mary Higgins consultant obstetrician  National Maternity Hospital, Dublin

 mhiggins@nmh.ie