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 about which you want feedback. 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.

Concepts for Success

Compose a strong title

A strong title summarizes the main idea you want to get across. A title should communicate what you found and why it matters. A title should attract your audience with something that everyone cares about.

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.


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 and a sans serif script. High-contrast color combinations are best (i.e. black text on a white background).

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 protocol, technology, or results, a good picture is worth much more than a 36″ x 36″ page full of text.

Arrange your poster

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. Some examples of useful boxes include:

  1. Introduction/Purpose
  2. Methods/Experimental Design
  3. Results
  4. Summary/Graphical Diagram
  5. Future Directions

It’s wise to label your boxes to help your reader navigate your poster logically. A title like “Arsenic contamination of groundwater is common in Southeast Asia” is far more informative than “Data” 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!

Visually segmenting your material can offer a clean and logical aesthetic to the poster. Some ways to do this include using bordered boxes, white space, and color.

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.

Practice your 20-second pitch

The most common scenario 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:

Component of pitch Example Why
Something that every single person in the room cares about Bacteria helped clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill much faster than expected. Highlights motivation and positions the audience to the field
Why we need to know/do more about that thing Only a handful of oil-degrading species have been isolated in the lab. Introduce the audience to the hypothesis
What you did in this project In this project, we aim to identify oil-degrading species and oil-degrading pathways with culture-independent techniques. Helps audience understand the experimental design
What your results mean These results could provide a baseline measurement of biodegradation in natural environments… Explains your interpretation of the data to the audience
How your results contribute to the thing everyone cares about …improving the way we respond to oil spills. Connects the audience to the broader theme

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

This content was adapted from from an article originally created by the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab.

Resources and Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 1

Annotated Example 1

This is a poster presented by an MIT graduate student at a microbiology conference. 4 MB

Annotated Example 2

Annotated Example 2

This is a poster presented by MIT BE graduate students at a microbiome conference. 815 KB