Criteria for Success

For a successful poster…

  1. Create a title that attracts your audience.
  2. Make the main message stand out.
  3. Use strong figures and sparing text to support the main message.
  4. Practice your 20-second pitch.

Structure Diagram

Posters can have many layouts. Aim for the following overall division of space.




Your poster is a visual aid to spoken conversations you’ll have at a poster session.  It should draw people to you, help them understand what you want them to understand, and help you talk to them.

Why are you making this poster? A clear purpose like “to hear critical feedback about my planned manuscript” or “to attract collaborators from within my field” defines a poster’s performance requirements: it must attract people who would read your future paper, get them up to speed on why you’re doing what you’re doing, and present them with the critical problems you want feedback on. A vague purpose like “to tell people about what I’ve done” doesn’t help you design your poster. Why do you want to tell people about what you’ve done? Why is your work important?

When and where will this poster be used? Successful posters are designed for a targeted audience at a single event. Posters designed for multiple purposes (for example, for use during a conference and then for use as a stand-alone manuscript-on-a-wall) tend to do poor jobs on all fronts. However, this doesn’t mean you always have to start from scratch! If presenting the same research to different audiences, think about how to keep the core message of your poster the same, while adapting the style to fit the target audience.

How will this poster be used? In most cases, you’ll be standing next to your poster, in which case you’ll be using it in the same way people use a pen and paper to explain their ideas and results. Unlike a pen and paper, the figures and data can be clean and attractive. If you’re not standing next to your poster, what should it accomplish? Someone might email you; they might be impressed and remember your name; it might influence their research.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what should or shouldn’t go on a poster. Think instead about what will be useful. To answer “Should I put [x] in my poster?”, ask yourself “Will that draw or deter my audience? Will it be useful to have on-hand during a conversation? Should I just have a copy of my paper in my pocket instead? Do I want someone to be able to take a picture of my poster while I’m away from it?”

Analyze your Audience

People at poster sessions are often bored and overwhelmed: there are so many posters, most posters are full of details, and most presenters love to talk details. A successful poster gets across all the necessary information clearly and quickly. If someone is so interested in your work that they’d like to know more, you can provide them with more written material or a way to contact you later to ask questions. A successful poster helps get a conversation started; a weak poster is a technical memo broken up into boxes. If you’ve already written a paper or journal article on your topic, don’t just copy and paste blocks of text from your paper!


Compose a strong title

A strong title summarizes the main idea you want to get across. It should be so broad that, if you made it even a little more broad, it would stop being an interesting idea or a true representation of your work.

To make a weak title into a strong title, pick out the key nouns and verbs, make them as general as possible, and link them together with as few words as possible. For example:

  • The weak title Application of recently commercially available high-temperature superconductors enables the construction of high-field magnets which allow fusion reactors to be built smaller and cheaper
  • has the key nouns superconductor, reactor
  • and the key verb enables
  • Linking the key nouns and verbs produces the strong title New superconductors enable high-field devices: Smaller, cheaper fusion reactors.

Put your title in letters big enough to read from 15 feet away (at least 3/4″, but 1″ is better). Make the title as legible as possible: don’t use all caps, don’t use shadowing or embossing, but do use high contrast colors. Black text on a white background is best. Remember, your title contains the first words that a person viewing your poster will read. Make each word count!

Make the main message stand out

A poster session is a tough gig. If your poster is hard to understand, people will just move on. The best way to make your poster easy to understand is to make the main message stand out. Your main message should be the first thing someone sees and understands when they look at your poster.

There isn’t one best way to make the main message stand out on every poster. Get creative! One powerful strategy is to put a big, beautiful figure right in the middle of the poster. Whether it shows your experimental technique or key results, a good picture is worth much more than a 36″ x 36″ page full of text.

Arrange strong figures and sparing text for easy navigation

Most posters arrange their material into boxes with a navigation system that’s intuitive (for the reader!) and goes from introduction to main result to implications (with details that are essential to the message but don’t fit in the flow relegated to the bottom or corners). Exactly which boxes you include depends on your message. It’s wise to label your boxes with sentences or phrases that convey the message of the box. While a title like “Introduction” can be effective, your space could be used more efficiently if the title is instead “Background in Radiation Damage” or “Explanation of the MOOSE framework.”

Practice your 20-second pitch

The most common question at a poster session is some variation on “So, what’s all this about?” The next 20 seconds is critical: a strong summary of your main message can spark a conversation, but a fumbling deluge of details can sink one. A strong pitch has five parts:

  1. Something that every single person in the room cares about
  2. Why we need to know/do more about that thing
  3. What you did in this project
  4. What your results mean
  5. How your results contribute to the thing everyone cares about

Here’s a pitch that can be comfortably delivered in 20 seconds:

“A large obstacle for nuclear materials researchers is the cost and time required for in-core reactor irradiations. I’ve developed a technique to use charged ions from small particle accelerators to simulate neutron damage in nuclear materials. The rapid turn-around time and low cost of this technique allows for many small scoping experiments to be performed before committing a large amount of resources to a dedicated, in-core experiment.”

Practice your pitch, then refine it as you get to know your audience better.