Editor's note: Clare Sansom has 15 years research experience in structural biology and bioinformatics. She currently lectures at University of London's Birbeck College, in addition to working as a bioinformatics consultant and freelance science writer. She was recently a poster judge for a meeting for young researchers. She shares her insight into how you can communicate your results effectively with a poster.

Most Ph.D. students find that their first experience of presenting their work at a conference comes in the form of a poster. If you are a Ph.D. student you are likely find yourself, sometime soon, after weeks of meticulous preparation, standing by your poster in a draughty hall, sipping coffee or beer, and waiting to see who comes by. Sometimes it can really seem like a lottery. So if you are standing alone in front of your poster feeling ignored, keep in mind that the next person to stop by might be a useful collaborator or even a future boss. You can't affect the layout of the room or the timing of your session, but you can still do a lot to make sure that your research results stand a chance of attracting the attention they deserve.

Two months ago, I was one of the judges of a poster competition at the Young Bioinformaticians' Forum in Oxford, which was hosted by the UK Bioinformatics Forum and the Royal Society of Chemistry's Molecular Modelling Group. Along with three colleagues, I was responsible for awarding the prize of £100 to one of 25 posters. This prompted me to think carefully about what makes a poster stand out.

At this meeting we were given certain criteria for the evaluation, the most relevant being: research excellence, innovation, communication, and clarity. Assuming the quality and novelty are already there, how do you do your research justice in a poster?

It Starts with the Abstract

First of all, I would recommend putting time into the abstract you submit to the conference. Not only do you need a good one to be accepted to the meeting, but it will also pay off later. Bear in mind that large international meetings can feature hundreds of posters, and this is pretty overwhelming for visitors, let alone judges. Advertise your work in advance by writing an informative abstract and title (which of course will be published in the conference proceedings) whose message is still intriguing enough to merit an on-site visit. Carefully select the poster session category you want be included in to attract the attention of an interested and expert audience.

When your abstract is (hopefully) accepted, check the display dimensions you have been given, as they vary considerably from meeting to meeting. It sounds obvious, but your poster should be easily legible at the usual viewing distance of about a metre. So choose a clearly legible font and a large font size! The general rule is that long chunks of unbroken text will be the death of any poster; use short, punchy sentences or, better still, bullet points. The old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words is really true here.

The biggest decision is choosing what needs to go into the poster and what can safely be left out. When planning this, keep the conference audience in mind. Is it a small, specialist group or a large general meeting? A poster prepared for a specialised meeting, where everyone is very familiar with your techniques or your favourite molecule under study, will be quite different from one designed for a conference which draws delegates working in diverse research areas.

Pitch your introduction to reflect the knowledge of the conference audience. My advice would be to avoid detailed materials and methods; you can elaborate on this in person. The results section is the core of any poster; the crucial factor here is quality beats quantity. A poster with 2-3 figures is ideal. The conclusion should put your results in context by relating them to previous findings in the field. Finally, don't forget to explain how you intend to take your work further; this is a great way of engaging future collaborative partners. Making an A4 printout of your poster is certainly useful and makes it easier for people to keep your work in mind afterwards.

Get a Second Opinion

A poster's overall visual appeal is subjective, so get a second opinion from a colleague. A general rule is to avoid playing around with exotic colour schemes; the medium needs to highlight the message rather than get in its way. Finally, proofread, get a friend to proofread, then proofread some more. Typos look sloppy and won't give a good impression to the potential employers that that may walk past. At the YBF 2004 meeting, the first poster I struck off had a typo in the title.

When the conference is over, don't roll your poster up so it never sees the light of day again. Display it in your department; it can be quite motivating to see the fruits of your hard work on the wall. People often enjoy--and learn a lot by --fortuitously reading a colleague's poster in the corridor. You may be surprised how this can stimulate discussions about your work: "So how did you get that nice staining or get that conclusion from your microarrays?.."

Many of the posters and poster abstracts presented at YBF 2004 can be viewed on their Web site. The winner was Sanne Abeln of Oxford University, for a poster entitled "Fold Usage on Genomes and Protein Fold Evolution".

If you have time, take a close look (Microsoft PowerPoint format) at it and see if you can work out what attracted us. One of my comments was "It makes particularly good use of white space". The close runner up was Peter Giles' poster from Cardiff University, describing a new tool for annotating microarray data.