How To: Create a Research Poster
For most students, the first exposure to presenting research findings is through a research poster. Posters are a visually-appealing way to present research findings that are brief, and they're easy for students to help with.
In this post I want to cover how each section of a poster should be handled. One thing that is apparent when attending conference poster presentations is that many posters are boring and very text-heavy. Posters provide researchers an opportunity to be creative and to go outside of the typical formatting (in our case, APA style) that manuscripts are required to follow, so we should be taking advantage of that flexibility!
Have a poster to work on, and need something to get you started? I've uploaded a poster template to my resources page, which you can download and use. It has some basic tips included with it, but here are some more detailed suggestions:
First, you need to get the poster setup to the right specifications for the conference you plan to attend. Posters are typically created using a single slide in PowerPoint, as is the case with the template I have provided. (Why this is the case, I still don't fully understand, but it's the reality). For that slide, you want to go into the settings to make sure the dimensions are appropriate. The dimensions of my template are fairly standard, but can be altered as needed.
Next, you'll want to make sure the color theme works for you. It can be helpful to have the background and title header of the poster match the colors of your institution (if they have any), such as the blue I use for DePaul. You can also add logos if appropriate, though be aware that many institutions have copyright for their logos and specific requirements for how they are used.
For the introduction, you can't really escape having text. You'll want to summarize the background literature with citations, but keep it as brief as possible. If you've read posters before, you know how quickly a poster can seem "wordy," especially when you're standing in front of the presenters awkwardly while trying to read.
To help keep things brief, and to help those who are interested in skimming your poster rather than reading it word-for-word (which, honestly, will be most people), it is helpful to have a brief summary of the hypotheses or research questions at the end of the introduction. This can be a brief paragraph or bullet points, whichever you think fits your needs/style better.
Once you get to the methods, you finally have some opportunity to use visualizations. You'll want a brief paragraph describing your study and sample, but then try to think of as many ways you can visually represent the data as possible. You can use pie charts to show the ratio of males to females, bar graphs or pie charts to show the representation of races/ethnic groups and the different ages in your sample, and so forth. Anything that cannot be represented visually, or that would take up too much space, should be represented in text (but as bullet points).
Here is the main section of your poster that people will be interested in, and the most important place to use visualizations. For the most part, tables will be your go-to for showing results. When putting together tables, use colors that compliment the other colors of the poster, but don't blend in too much. PowerPoint comes with a lot of different color themes that you can experiment with until you find a good fit. Make sure all of the numbers in tables line up (I recommend using decimal tab stops), and utilize different colors to separate pieces of information. For example, different regression analyses can be in one table, but you can have a separate color for each analysis. (The poster above doesn't have the different coloration because PowerPoint wasn't cooperating, but I have used this method with other posters I've been a co-author on).
When possible, charts are great in the results section. When briefly looking over numbers, it can be difficult to understand how they all relate to one another (at least, while trying to quickly make sense of it to limit the time spent awkwardly standing in front of the presenter to read). Using bar charts, scatter plots, line graphs, and so forth can help make the relationship very clear. They are also useful to help you explain the results when people come up and say the inevitable "So, give me a summary of what you did." For example, the poster up top has a line chart representing the simple slopes analysis that helps to illustrate what is going on with the interaction identified in the regression analyses.
You'll certainly need some text, but as is the case with the methods section you want to keep it limited to the information that can't be visually represented very well. The main focus of the text should be incorporating the information that is represented visually.
The discussion will be all text, but it should be kept brief. In the discussion you want to have a summary of everything that you did. Assume that readers may skip everything on your poster and ready only the discussion (because some certainly will). With that in mind, you want to make sure to convey all of the appropriate information very concisely. In some ways, the discussion acts as your abstract.
Of course, you need a references section for your citations. Make sure these are all consistent and follow the appropriate formatting (e.g., APA style). The text here can be smaller than the rest of the poster, to help save space, but should still be readable once the poster is printed.
That's pretty much all there is to putting together a poster! Once you have the results from your analyses, posters are generally pretty easy to put together (though always take longer than you expect, so give yourself plenty of time). Follow my tips above, and you should be fine. Just take some extra time to make sure everything looks good! Little things (like having the text justified, so the columns are "cleaner" looking) can make a big difference, and will help you get the attention of conference attendees.
Have poster tips of your own from your conference experiences? Have questions about how to best represent some information on a poster? Let me know in the comments!