Oct 25, 2013
A. Craig Lockhart, MD, and Jeffrey Clarke, MD
Abstracts and poster presentations are an important modality of communication, networking, and professional development for fellows, junior faculty, and even senior investigators. While producing abstracts or posters may come naturally to some, many people find conveying complex information in a succinct and limited format quite challenging. We had the great opportunity this summer to hear Vicki A. Morrison, MD, and George W. Sledge, MD, at the ASCO/American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Workshop: Methods in Clinical Cancer Research, discuss ways to deliver an effective presentation.
It occurred to us while listening to them that a lot of their advice for presentations applied directly to writing abstracts and creating posters as well. In our experience, and building on their comments, here is some advice on creating a reliable framework for a successful presentation and an effective abstract or poster:
Simple is better
As physicians, we are programed to be thorough and detail-oriented; however, we routinely overestimate the level at which our audience becomes fatigued with the dense content of abstracts and posters. Given the time, energy, and attention-span constraints on the audience at national meetings, including only essential information pertinent to your abstract and poster is critical to ensuring your results are conveyed properly. Avoid digressions and focus on the conclusions you wish to communicate to the reader. Structure your methods and results to support only your important concluding points. Provide a succinct rationale to your abstract, minimize text throughout your poster, delete extraneous language, and simplify descriptions.1
Don’t be overly ambitious.
The burden of data required for an abstract or poster is inherently different from a full journal publication. The amount of original data needed is in many cases substantially less for abstracts or posters. Furthermore, the results are frequently preliminary or hypothesis generating. Accordingly, narrow the spectrum of questions addressed by the abstract or poster to avoid diluting your message. By streamlining your methods and results sections, you can also avoid having your audience gloss over important elements of your data and conclusions.2
Aesthetics are important.
The physical appearance of your poster can be a double-edged sword. Although bold colors, bright pictures, and captivating graphs certainly confer character and enthusiasm to your poster, overuse of these elements can also appear busy, cluttered, and even chaotic to your audience. Methodically use clean, simple graphs and pictures to draw the audience’s attention to the most important parts of your message. Well-designed figures can many times help explain complex methods or results and allow you to eliminate crowded text. Do not be afraid to ask for the assistance of a medical illustrator at your institution to help create figures or adjust the aesthetics of your poster (which is usually worth paying the nominal fee). Finally, use numbers, bullets, and arrows liberally to help you readers follow the logical progression of your poster and help minimize long, droning paragraphs.
Remember your audience.
Always be cognizant of the rule of tens with abstracts and posters: the average attendee will read your poster from 10 feet away for 10 seconds.1,3 The title and section headings should be brief and descriptive with uniform font that is easily readable from 10 feet away. Furthermore, you should be able to describe your topic succinctly in about 10 seconds.3 Place emphasis on using concise, efficient language in your abstract and poster to avoid audience fatigue.
Finally, your friends, colleagues, and mentors make the best practice audience and can be extraordinarily helpful in editing and critiquing your abstract and poster prior to the conference. Perhaps most important, the audience will most likely remember you, not your poster. Strive to be approachable, engaging, and confident during the poster session, yet open to discussion, criticism, and feedback from others.1,2 Additionally, use your abstract and poster presentation as a networking opportunity with faculty at other institutions; have contact information visible and business cards available. Ultimately, your abstract and poster should convey your data and ideas. Follow these principles and your abstract and poster will be an effective tool for communication, networking, and professional growth.
1. Hamilton CW. Chest. 2008;134:457-9. PMID: 18682467.
2. Erren TC, Bourne PE. PLoS Comput Biol. 2007;3:e102. PMID: 17530921.
3. Wood GJ, Morrison RS. J Palliat Med. 2011;14:353-9. PMID: 21241194.