Creating a better poster

Dr Lynne Lawrance explains why posters at Congress often fail to win and shares tips to make entries better

Part of my role as an examiner for the IBMS has involved reviewing the abstracts submitted for posters at the IBMS Congress and the judging the competition on the day. It is a task I have generally really enjoyed and it has been great to see so many early-career scientists presenting posters of their research, seeing the enthusiasm they have and giving them the chance to show their work to fellow professionals.

BUT! – every cycle of abstract review and judging is affected by frustrations that there are also people who do not give the required attention to the quality of their work and we have to reject their abstract. So here are some observations from years of experience of the things to avoid if you want to at least have your abstract accepted.

Common Reasons for Abstract Rejections

The underlying reason most abstracts are rejected is they have not paid attention to the instructions. The congress organisers give very clear instructions – why would you ignore them and give us a reason to reject your submission?

Common errors have included:

Too many authors

This is a poster not a submission to Nature! The only people who should be listed as authors on a poster are those directly involved in the work, for a poster it is highly unlikely that this will be more than 4 – and in many cases will just be the presenter and their direct supervisor. Other people can be noted in the acknowledgements – for example, media suppliers, or someone who did basic prep work to support the project.

Too long a title

The instructions have a limit – stick to it. A title should be short and catchy yet accurately reflect the content.

Your abstract includes the sentence “results will be discussed”.

The IBMS instructions to authors very clearly states that this is not permissible. We know you often have to put an abstract in well in advance of an event and it can be tempting to put something in before you know the results, but if you are really that early in the project then wait for the next Congress when you do have some results to include in the abstract.

The editorial standard of the abstract was poor and unprofessional

In the days of modern word processing, it really is not acceptable that abstracts come in with spelling or typographical errors. Put the abstract through a grammar and spelling checker, proofread it to spot things that may get missed by the software – e.g. switching “from” to “form” or “has” to “ash”. Then get a fresh pair of eyes to check as the human brain is good at autocorrecting, so ask someone who has not read the abstract to check it carefully.

Common Reasons for Not Winning the Poster Prize

There can only be one winner in each discipline, so even very good posters will not win. Here are some things to avoid to make sure you don’t quickly put yourself out of the running!

  • You weren’t at your poster at the time the judges came around – if you want to be considered for the competition you need to be at the poster session for your discipline. The judges have many posters to assess, you may be first to be seen or you may be last, but stay with your poster.
  • The editorial standard – as with the abstract minimise typographical errors, make sure images are clear, make sure you reference sources appropriately especially make sure you don’t use copyright images without permission.
  • You tried to fit a book on a poster – a poster is a form of brief communication, don’t try to cram too much on. Keep text succinct and remember you can expand to this orally when people talk to you about your work. Don’t put on pictures just to make the poster look prettier – make sure everything is relevant.
  • You didn’t answer the question the judge asked you: when nerves kick in it can be easy to misunderstand a question – wait until the question is completed, pause and check you have understood before answering the question. If in any doubt ask for clarification of the question.

Top Tips

Doing a poster presentation at an event such as the IBMS Congress is a great experience, and gives you the chance to develop a lot of skills that will help you in the future. It also gives you a free day at Congress!! So I would encourage all of you doing projects as part of academic courses, or within the day-to-day role you have in the labs to consider presenting.

Remember:

  • Make sure you follow the instructions to authors
  • Check, check and check again to make your submission (both abstract and poster) look professional
  • Enjoy the day, be confident and enthusiastic about your work, you will know more about it than anyone else in the room.

Dr Lynne Lawrance is a Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology and former Chief Examiner for Medical Microbiology with the IBMS.