By Shannon Lucky, Information Technology Librarian, University of Saskatchewan
Bernice Leyeza, Research Assistant, Department of Geography & Planning, University of Saskatchewan
This summer I have been fortunate to have Bernice working as a research assistant, partially funded by an undergraduate student research grant at our institution. Part of the grant program has the RAs participate in a research poster competition at the end of the summer. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to co-write a post about designing and presenting a research poster from our two different perspectives.
I love presenting research posters. I like having real, sometimes lengthy, conversations with people who are interested in my research. I have gotten new perspectives on my work and great suggestions for things to look at, particularly scholarship outside of my academic bubble, from conversations with one or two people in a hall full of posters. This has never happened to me during a standard paper Q&A. Conferences where the posters presentations happen in tandem with refreshments are also a bonus. I have long suspected that the insightful introverts in our communities are a little bolder during cocktail hour than during lecture hall panel discussions.
While presenting a poster might be my favourite part of the process, designing one has been a surprisingly useful scholarly activity. I can easily fill up a word count limit for a paper, but trying to essentialize down what I am really trying to say (conveyed in the right 30 pt. font verbiage) has challenged me to get real about what I am doing – not what I like to think I am doing, or what I want other academics to think I am doing. It is hard to hide behind academic-ese when you have 16 square inches to describe the significance of your project. You also need to actually use that elevator pitch I know I have been coerced into writing at more than one research workshop. This is all to say that it is hard to phone-in a decent poster. You need to know your question, data, and results inside and out; well enough to distill it down to the essential text, speak extemporaneously about it, and probably answer a few questions.
I was lucky to have Bernice as my RA for this project. Not only was she eager to take on the challenge of translating our early results into a poster, she also has design skills that far surpass my own. In planning for the poster we came up with four essential questions that we have done our best to answer from each of our perspectives. We hope that the following advice will be useful for veteran and rookie research poster presenters alike.
- What is the poster for and who is my audience?
“My first undergraduate degree required us to master our skills in producing different communication materials. I took a lab class where our weekly assignments were to translate a research article into a poster – good practice for designing your own.” (Bernice)
Whether your poster is for a class or a conference, focus on the most interesting and important information for that audience and what language will speak to them. This is a good time to note any restrictions on dimensions, digital file standards, and any design or content requirements provided by the event organizer. Is this the place to show your creativity, or is it expected that you use a standard template/layout? Look at other examples from researchers in your discipline online or ask colleagues/professors if they can share examples with you. Get an idea of the common practices within your discipline or at the event you will be presenting at.
- What comes first, the writing or the design?
The quality of your research and ability to communicate its value is first and foremost. You can’t have a successful poster without solid research to communicate. Having said that, there are different approaches to turning your literature review, hypothesis, data, and analysis into a cohesive poster design. Bernice prefers to write up a research article first which helps solidify the important details for the poster. As she transfers the writing into the poster layout she works to make it more concise – good practice for academic writing in general. If the poster is about new (unpublished) research, Shannon prefers to write some quick notes and start laying out the broad ideas on post-its or in the design software. Finessing the writing comes later. Both approaches work well, just make sure to avoid self-plagiarism if you are re-purposing text from your publications and grants to fill out the purpose/methods/relevance sections.
- What design program should I use?
Unless there is a standard required template, you can use whatever software you like. We recommend using what you are comfortable with so you don’t spend extra hours struggling with the software; there is enough work to do getting your content organised. You can use something as simple as PowerPoint, or as complicated as InDesign, both can give you a professional looking result.
Sometimes universities will have a standard template students and faculty can use. For Bernice’s poster, we wanted it to look like a poster from our institution, but not like all of the other posters in the competition. Instead of using the standard ppt file, Bernice chose to design her own layout in InDesign using the official university colours.
- How will you make your poster engaging and able to stand out in a hall full of other presenters?
This answer has two approaches: design and presentation.
Design – Use sound design rules for your poster. You can print out 4-6 paragraphs of text in 16 pt. font and call it a day, but taking some extra time to make your poster look approachable (as in, you can read it in less than 30 minutes) and visually appealing will make your research look more approachable and interesting. Using appropriate white space, limiting your colour pallet (and think about accessibility for colour blind readers), and using a legible font in an appropriate size will go a long way to making your poster stand out. A good font size guideline is 85 pt. for the title, 36 pt. for sub headings, 24 pt. for the body, and 18 pt. for captions and references. Using relevant images and diagrams is also a good idea.
Presentation – First and foremost, you want to be presentable. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that are appropriate for the event. If you feel comfortable you will be more comfortable presenting. Have your elevator pitch memorised, but be ready to have a conversation about your project. Don’t stick to a formal script but if you get nervous you can prepare some talking points and write them down in bullet form. Try to engage with the audience around their interest in your research, not just your favourite ideas. This is a great way to find collaborators or get asked questions that may not come up in a formal conference Q&A. While you are standing by your poster waiting for someone to approach put your phone away, smile, and say hello. Don’t just talk to the people you know or people from your institution, you never know what kind of connections you will make.
This is a great networking opportunity, so make it easy for people to follow-up with you after the event. Include your email address, Twitter handle, or website URL directly on your poster and bring your business cards with you. If you won’t be standing next to your poster for the entire event, pin up a few cards next to your poster for people to take.
A few final tips:
- If you are travelling to present at a conference, plan ahead to have your poster printed at your destination. Shannon has had good luck using hosting universities’ campus print shops, and Staples is always a quick and nearly universal option. This will save you having to carry on a poster tube or risking damaging or losing your poster en route.
- Get the most mileage out of your poster. If your institution has an institutional repository, add your poster and some speaking notes to your profile. If you have a personal academic website, link to a pdf version of your poster there. Like any scholarly communication product, this may be useful to another researcher (if not for the subject matter, then certainly for your elegant design).
Research poster can be a little tricky, it may be easier to write about your research first or some people might find it easier to start with the layout. Practising how to write concise material is a useful exercise. If your information is well written, designing and presenting will come naturally. You don’t have to use complicated software to design your poster and can use the resources you have. Again, you are presenting your research and that’s the bulk of your poster. Make sure to follow the design rules of the conference and have your elevator pitch ready.
This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.