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How to stand out at a scientific poster session (for all the right reasons)

Man with yellow shirt stands in front of a poster on a posterboard at a conference

It’s late in the afternoon, and everyone’s just about ready to pack-up the lab for the day.

But just before you shut down your laptop and switch your brain off, you hear a little *ding* in your inbox. 😲

“You have been selected for a poster presentation at Conference X!” 🎉

Office guy celebrating BOO-YAH
Walking back into the lab to tell the others be like this ☝️

How exciting! It’s the perfect opportunity to visualise your latest data and to showcase the very BEST of your research in a scientific poster!

But now it’s time to get planning. You read the latest list of delegates and see that there’s hundreds of other researchers lined up for a poster presentation too.

What could you do to stand out from the crowd? 🤔

Well, I’m sure you know that designing a poster is hard work, so we’ve covered our award-winning design formula in great detail for you to check out. But what you may not know is that there’s more to an eye-catching poster presentation than just design itself.

In this post, we’re focusing how to nail a solid first impression for YOU, the presenter.

Let’s unpack some great strategies for getting noticed (for all the right reasons) 👇

Write an enticing abstract for registration 📝

Before we go into the actual poster itself, let’s talk about the very first thing you needed to make in order to apply and register for your poster presentation:

An abstract.

If you’re reading this before you’ve registered, you’re likely going to need to write a written abstract of about 250 words, which can vary in length from conference to conference. These abstracts are often published in conference booklets or apps, and provides delegates with a sneak-peek of your work while they’re sipping their morning coffee.

Woman in her bed going through a magazine or booklet and writes in it
We want people to note YOUR NAME down!

In fact, you can think of your abstract like an item in a shopping catalog — you’ll want it to be as shiny and appealing as possible to entice potential customers to visit your poster!

Here are some ways to write one effectively. 👇

Craft an original one catered for this conference’s audience

The first is to avoid the temptation of copy-pasting abstracts from previous posters or manuscripts 🙅🏻. This is because the conference you’re attending likely targets a specific demographic within your research field, so you’ll want to cater your writing accordingly.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is assumed knowledge for this audience? i.e. Virologists studying mosquito-transmitted viruses may not know much about mosquito entomology.

  • What is assumed jargon for for this audience? i.e Which of “vector-borne” or “mosquito-transmitted” could be more easily understood?

With that in mind, what’s an effective format for the abstract?

Storytelling with the ‘And, But, Therefore’ template

If you’re long-time readers of our blog, you might have seen this coming. 😆

But for those who are new to the concept, let me introduce you to the ‘And, But, Therefore’ or ABT template for short. The template comes from one of our favourite science communication books called “Connection” written by scientist-turned-filmmaker Dr. Randy Olson.

In a nutshell, this method of quick and effective storytelling breaks down your writing into 3 functional components:

And (A): This is where you add background knowledge and context for your topic.
But (B): This is where you present the knowledge gap or problem associated with your topic.
Therefore (T): This is where you present the solution (a.k.a. your research itself) for your topic.

Here’s an example of a good one that follows this format (Ruiz-García et al. 2020)

Ruiz-Garcia et al. 2020 stingray abstract following the ABT template

Now that the writing is out of the way, what else do we need?

Contact details

If the abstract submission portal allows it, you can provide your contact details including your Twitter, ResearchGate, or LinkedIn profiles. With this, the abstract booklet can function like a huge collection of business cards. Perhaps you’ll get contacted by an epic collaborator who’s got their eye on your work!

Woman has her eyes on you as she approaches from the poster hall
Associate Professor I've-Got-Funding is headed straight for you.

Indeed, crafting a solid abstract is more than just throwing words together. It’s an art in and of itself, and deserves a good amount of planning beforehand!

And speaking of things that you do before a conference, here’s one you may not have considered. 👇

Dress for the occasion! 💃🏻

Being invited to present at a conference, whether its a poster or oral presentation, is no different to attending a massive exclusive party with only the coolest scientists around.

It’s a big deal! And you want to look good for the event.

A very stylish dog looks at themselves in the mirror
Take a good look in the mirror until you say "Damn, I look good!"

So, if you’re asking yourself: “Ahh, what should I wear?” before you head to the halls, your concerns are very much valid. Dress to impress, as they always say!

But what on Earth could you possibly consider about your wardrobe choices?

Exercising formality

Conferences generally come with an unspoken ‘neat casual’ or ‘semi-formal’ dress code. Though these terms are inarguably the most vague descriptors of what could be expected. 🤷🏻

You wouldn’t want to underdress with baggy and creased home clothes (is that a coffee stain?)

Woman wearing various levels of wear.
Trackpants and Ugg boots, neat blazer, or glamorous ball-gown?

On the flipside, being overdressed might make you feel like a lost penguin in a room full of colourful peacocks. (I’ve actually had a similar experience, but learnt it’s definitely better to over-than-underdress!)

Man wearing various levels of wear.
T-shirt and shorts combo, collared button-up, or full-on tuxedo?

Certain types of conferences, for example those inviting industry-based delegates or big decision-makers, may be more formal than purely academic conferences. You can even reserve your more formal clothing for the conference dinner, just in case.

Though if you’re still completely unsure, you can check through old photos of that conference in previous years to size up everyone else’s wardrobe choices!

Now that you’ve got an idea for clothes, let’s tweak that outfit.

Design a cohesive colour scheme… for yourself?

We’ve definitely talked about creating a cohesive colour scheme for your posters and illustrations before in the past.

But what if I told you that your clothing COMPLETES your poster’s colour scheme?

Man say what meme
Say what?

That’s right. You can unleash your scientist-on-Instagram model skills by coordinating an ideal set of colours for your conference outfit! 📸

Here’s a few ways to do it.

#Twinning 👯‍♀️

Given we’re living in the social media boom of the 21st century, you’ve definitely heard the appeal of #twinning before. For the unacquainted, this is simply where you and another person happen to be wearing the same or similar sets of clothes. My lab mates and I used to keep tabs on whenever we wore the same thing as each other, and is thus the inspiration for this point!

But in this case, you can #twin with your poster itself!

Twins movie where Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are twinning
You rocking up with your A0 pride and joy.

For example, corporate blue posters call for a cool sleek wardrobe.

And bright yellow posters call for a splash of sunshine with a golden outfit.

So on and so forth!

Blue woman next to blue poster, yellow man next to yellow poster

Contrast 🎨

If you’re not a fan of looking too similar to your poster, you could dress with the accent colour for your poster. This can make you pop out as you stand proud next to your work.

To select an accent colour, one way is to pick one that’s roughly opposite to your poster’s overall colour from the colour wheel. Black or white also work well as a contrast to every colour.

Pink woman blue poster

Purple man yellow poster

Of course, you have complete freedom over what you think looks good (and fits the bill for the dress code).

And when you’re standing next to hundreds of delegates, you’ll pop out with a splash of colour just as much as your poster does.

With dress code all wrapped up, here’s one last tip to carry with you for every occasion.

Wear a smile! 😄

When it’s 8:00 pm and you’ve just sat through hours of back-to-back talks, you might be feeling like a flat battery.

Cat taking a nap faceplanting

But you’ve still got to reserve some energy and enthusiasm for your poster presentation.

We get it.

After all, standing idly next to your poster might feel like twiddling your fingers waiting for the next customer. 👋

So how do we enhance your enthusiasm?

Be the one who starts the conversation

When it comes to poster halls, people usually do a LOT of window shopping. They have a look at a cool figure on your poster, or peer over at the authors to see what big-shots are involved in the study.

Give them 5 seconds of window shopping, then hit them with a gentle smile, a friendly hello, and the ol’ handy phrase:

“Would you like me to run through my poster for you?”

Hook. Line. And sinker. Now reel them in with your epic research. 🎣

Convey confidence through your body language

First impressions often come from what people think of your body language. We’ve dived deep into this topic in extensive detail in our 3-Minute Thesis series and in our ‘acting skills for scientists’ posts if you’d like to know more.

But in a nutshell, consider the following:

  • Are you slouching, looking nervous, or tapping away on your phone? 😨🤳

  • Or are you standing proud and feeling ready to take on the world? 😉✨

I’ll let you figure out which of the two might be more appealing to the audience. If it helps, grab a beverage or a light nibble to help keep you occupied while you wait for people to come by.

Final tips to get everyone’s attention

We’ve only touched on what sorts of things you could do to make you, the presenter, stand out for all the right reasons. Of course this is but half the equation, while your poster and its content form the second half.

So, there’s still plenty to consider about your:

  • creative writing

  • poster design

  • and pitching skills

To learn more about these three aspects, we recommend checking out our other fantastic posts like how to write a great analogy for your poster title, how to select the best colour schemes for your poster, and how to pitch to a specific target audience to really nail the best impression of you and your work.

It’s poster design time!

Now that you’ve got your strategy sorted out for making a big splash at the conference, you’re now tasked with creating your brand new poster.

But if you’re strapped for time, or aren’t sure where to start, you’ve got us to rely on.

Our team of PhD-trained science communicators and professional artists create stunning scientific posters catered to your research topic. We’ve had the pleasure of creating posters for academics all over the world using our award-winning formula for success. You can view our service here to learn more.

Though if you’d like to take the creative lead, then check out our online courses which dive deeper into poster design, then craft your poster using the industry’s best software.

We wish you success with your poster endeavours!


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