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.


Identify Your Purpose

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” 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.

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, first 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.

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 my detailed protocol on 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 protocol in my pocket instead? Do I want someone to be able to take a picture of it while I’m away from my poster?”

Analyze Your Audience

People at poster sessions are often bored and overwhelmed: there are so many posters, and 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. A successful poster helps get a conversation started; a weak poster is a technical memo broken up into boxes.


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 (appropriate to the audience of the conference you are attending), and link them together with as few words as possible. For example:

  • The weak title Novel methods for early prediction of undesirable interference by microbial inhabitants of the human gut with metabolism of the drug lamivudine give rise to strategies for alleviating drug inactivation
  • has the key nouns human gut microbiome and drug
  • and the key verbs predict, interfere, and
  • Linking the key nouns and verbs produces the strong title Predicting and alleviating drug interference by the human microbiome.

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.

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 someones see and understands when they look at your poster.

There’s 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 protocol, technology, or most important result, 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

After you’ve figured out how to show your main message, you’ll need to support it. What’s the motivation? What are the implications? What approach did you take? The rest of your poster’s space is for answering questions like these.

Aim to answer most of these questions with figures and very sparing text. Bullet points are easier to read than paragraphs.

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. (Details that are essential to the message but don’t fit in the flow are relegated to the bottom or corners.) Exactly which boxes you include depends on your message.

Label your boxes with sentences or phrases that convey the message of the box. A title like “Arsenic contamination of groundwater is common in Southeast Asia” is far more informative than “Introduction” or even “Arsenic in Southeast Asia.” If you can’t formulate a strong message-title for a box, it might mean that the box isn’t saying anything important!

Not sure where to start? Find some templates and annotated examples on our Github page, here.

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 are 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:

  1. Bacteria helped clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill much faster than expected.
  2. Only a handful of oil-degrading species have been isolated in the lab.
  3. In this project, we aim to identify oil-degrading species and oil-degrading pathways with culture-independent techniques.
  4. These results could provide a baseline measurement of biodegradation in natural environments…
  5. …improving the way we respond to oil spills.

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

Resources and Annotated Examples

Poster Templates

Poster Templates

Find poster templates and annotated examples on our GitHub page!

Annotated Example 1

Annotated Example 1

This is a poster presented by an MIT graduate student at a microbiology conference. 12 MB

Annotated Example 2

Annotated Example 2

This is a poster presented by MIT BE graduate students at a microbiome conference. 3 MB