02 June 2011

Breaking the hourglass for headings that holler

Making a poster like a journal article is one of the easiest traps for a poster maker to fall into.

Much of the good advice about posters from Mike the Mad Biologist will be familiar to readers. But this one is something I haven’t written about:

Informative headings are your friends. I see too many posters with sections labelled “Abstract”, “Methods”, “Results”, and “Conclusions.” You have a summary! And some methods! Results and conclusions too! Bully for you. Use the section headings to inform the reader, while simultaneously describing the figure or table (see #2). Something like, “xyz genes are found only in clinical isolates” tells me what I should be looking for in the figure.

This is a classic case of doing something for no reason other than habit.

Academics write journal articles. It’s what we do. And journal articles have a very rigid structure that takes practice to master. So much so that it becomes second nature.

The classic journal structure has an acronym: IMRAD. The letters stand for the section headings that Mike refers to: Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion. This format leads to people saying that academic papers have an hourglass shape: They start off very broad in terms of problems and concepts (Introduction), increasingly become more specific and detailed (Methods and Results), then widen back out again to big picture stuff (Discussion).

You can even see this tapering from general to specific in the Introduction. The first sentence is usually about some very big issue, like terrorism or invasive species or the nature of sexism. Then it pares down to to a more specific question, then pares down again and again until you get to this particular paper.

This means that the specific research question is usually buried in the last paragraph of the Introduction. this could be two to five paragraphs down in the text. This is what my journalist friends call, “burying the lead.”

But you don’t need to follow that structure on a poster! At least, not to the degree of actually spelling out each heading.

Someone looking through conference posters wants to know the question you are trying to answer immediately. Putting those key points in big text as a heading helps the curious quickly figure out if this is something they want to read. The IMRAD format is so well known to academics that you can dispense with them entirely. I did that on one of the favourite posters that I’ve done, and it worked well, in my opinion.

Instead of, “Introduction blah blah blah research question?”, shorten it to, “Research question.” Leave all the rationale and justification and background and blah blah blah off the poster and say it  to people who visit your poster.

Related posts

Poster Venn
Should your first presentation be a poster?
References on posters

Trap photo by kevindean on Flickr; hourglass photo by bogenfreund on Flickr; both used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

It'a a bit late in the day to comment on this post, but ...

I think the standard headings are usually not what you need in papers, either, and that they persist mostly by tradition alone. For example, in a recentish paper of ours we used headings like "Sexual selection and survival selection are not mutually exclusive" and "No single feature is sexually selected across any speciose tetrapod clade". Much more helpful.