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Better Poster Sessions for Everyone

A medical-event producer gave its poster presenters a research-based approach to creating posters that are easier for attendees with sensory difficulties—and other attendees—to understand. Here is that approach.

With medical conferences having so many moving parts, it’s understandable that something as basic as poster creation might not command much attention from event organizers. But recent research should make planners reconsider their approach.

A late 2022 survey of nearly 500 medical-event attendees found that 57 percent had at least one accessibility need as they consume content on site. The top four needs cited by respondents involved information processing, sensory distraction, hearing difficulty, and visual difficulty.

The research, conducted by Dr. Emily Messina and her team at IPG Health Medical Communications, brought about a poster-redesign project that also included Dr. Zen Faulkes, author of the book Better Posters and the Better Posters blog, and Dr. Michael Morrison, a psychologist who helped start the #BetterPoster movement.

“The core problem with traditional scientific-poster design is that it ignores the context of how busy and overwhelming the presentation space is—mainly because it was created decades ago when poster sessions were much smaller,” Faulkes said in a recent article. “There is also a harmful feedback loop in poster design, where authors with little or no design training feel they must fill all the space with text and figures.”

These are the main reasons why the team acted to create a poster template for the industry. “The most effective posters are designed to teach people quickly about what a study found, even when they’re mentally overwhelmed or standing far away,” Faulkes noted. “This typically means better posters are much less cluttered, have bigger key figures and data visualizations, and have large, clear takeaways.”

The remainder of the poster should be designed to communicate additional details at a distance of three to five feet. Lastly, the design template recommends a QR code that attendees can scan to get the author’s contact details or read the whole paper.

In fact, this format is more effective not only for those with accessibility issues—diminished hearing or vision, ADHD, social anxiety, etc.—but also for attendees who are simply passing by, which raises the value of the conference for all participants. And for presenters who worry about enlarged figures and text acting as “spoilers” that keep attendees from stopping to hear the presentation, the team’s research so far indicates that the same number or more are stopping to interact.

Coaching Presenters to Make Better Posters
Spurred by the survey results and the poster-redesign project, the planners of an annual conference in London that’s aimed at medical researchers, clinicians, and policy makers—known as The Cochrane Colloquium—chose to educate their 300 poster presenters on making poster information easier to be absorbed, understood, and remembered by passing attendees.

Using the tenets of the #BetterPoster team, the conference planners created a five-slide PowerPoint presentation that they sent to poster presenters several weeks ahead of the event. It included sample posters that showed where graphs, critical figures, and other key points should be placed, along with how large they should be. It even included a link to a free QR-code generator to make it easy for presenters to add one to their posters.

The Cochrane Colloquium took place from September 4 to 6, so post-event feedback in the coming weeks will allow the planning team to evaluate attendee sentiment about the quality of posters and whether attendees learned more from poster sessions than in previous years.

A link to The Cochrane Colloquium’s PowerPoint presentation for its poster presenters can be found under the third heading in this document.

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