How to make an Academic Poster


If you want to make a poster, the Celtic Students Conference is accepting some!

The standard way for academics to take part in conferences is through the oral, (usually) 20-minute long presentation. If you level-up to Highly Respected Professor, you may get your own 45 minutes to an hour keynote lecture. One thing we rarely see, even though the option often exists, is academic posters. Yet it is a valuable way to contribute to an academic event, while offering unique opportunities to interact with colleagues. Let’s delve into it further.

What is an Academic Poster?
An academic poster is a written, printed poster (you don’t tell!), often in A2 or A1 format, that is displayed at events like conferences. It is often to be seen in the main hub of the conference, or in specially dedicated rooms. Even though posters are written and can be looked at freely throughout the event, special poster sessions tend to be added to the programme in order to allow authors to discuss their contribution with colleagues and audience members in a more formalised way.

What are the Advantages and Drawbacks of Posters?
Academic posters present several advantages that oral presentations do not have. The first one is that as they are displayed throughout the conference, anybody can access them at their leisure, without the temporal and spatial constraints of paper sessions. A second advantage is that interactions between authors and interested audience members are more personal, revolving around a discussion of various points of your research more casually. A third advantage, especially for young academics, is that you do not need to muster the courage and self-confidence to stand in front of a live audience of peers staring at you for 20 minutes straight, plus question-time. Posters are a great first contribution, offering the opportunity to put your work out there at your own rhythm.

Any drawbacks to posters, then? Well, quite simply the fact that you are not making a public presentation. So do not hope to spend a career hiding behind posters, you’ll need to face a live audience eventually. For some of us it’s easy, for others it isn’t. Posters cannot replace oral presentations, they are simply another medium that deserves to be used in its own right. So use it.

What is Contained in a Poster?
Like a regular oral paper, posters (hopefully) give the audience an insight into part of a research project. There are three elements to consider: Topic, layout, and content.

  • Topic. One thing to bear in mind is that posters are limited in space, so you have to pick a topic that is interesting on its own while not requiring lengthy explanations. Choose some small part of your research. Are you working on 16th century Breton religious poetry? Pick one poem or extract which is representative of some point you’re trying to make. Are you looking at Proto-Celtic vowel quality and its evolution into modern Celtic languages? Pick one vowel that you found particularly interesting for your poster. Your thesis deals with Iron Age fortifications in the west of Ireland? Pick a site that has features which can be representative of what interests you. When it comes to the topic of your poster, the key is to pick something that will not require you to have a massive, A1-sized illegible text block while still making a point. It happens to also be good practice for oral presentations, as too many of us are still unable, even after decades, to choose a topic that actually fits within our allocated 20 minutes.
  • Layout. Keep it simple. The layout of your poster needs to be legible and simple. It must have breathing space so people feel like reading it. Big blocks of text in size 12 font will be ignored by most – if not all. Do not hesitate to be creative with visuals, text boxes, or colours. But if you’re not confident about the aesthetic aspect of things, fear not: Clarity will do the trick. Remember the cultural background of your audience: Most Celtic academics are from Western, Indo-European cultures, or are at least used to work in that context, which means that by default they’ll read left to right and top to bottom. Don’t confuse people with too unexpected a layout.

If your research is funded and you somehow need to display the support you’re getting, don’t forget to have logos or other appropriate acknowledgements in a corner somewhere. Your own contact details should be there as well, at least an email address, in case people would like to discuss your work further.

  • Content. An academic poster doesn’t need much. A title, an introduction and conclusion (or a summary, see below), the core elements of your topic, and some key references.

Have a clear title at the top or in a place that attracts the eye: People need to know what they’ll be looking at as they approach your poster. “Nature in Breton religious poetry”, “The evolution of Proto-Celtic /a/”, “Dún Aitéicint: A late example of Iron Age fortifications”.

The introduction needs only be two or three sentences, detailing the overall project and the specific topic looked at here. Try answering the following questions in one sentence or less each: What is your research? How does this poster’s topic fit in it? What is this poster’s focus? If people have more questions about that, they can ask you during poster sessions or coffee breaks. Similarly, the conclusion need not be long. It can be only a few sentences summarising the point you want to get across. I would recommend keeping it open, possibly with questions you ask yourself in your work.

Alternatively, you can put the introduction and conclusion together into a summary. Your summary is a paragraph that will place the poster’s topic in the context of your research (like an introduction), give the key finding or point you want to make, and open on further research (like a conclusion). As it fusions both introduction and conclusion, it can be a bit more detailed, but avoid heavy blocks of text.

Now, for the core of the poster. This is what you want to show. To follow up on the examples above, have the Breton poem you picked in the center of the poster, possibly surrounded by text boxes, each making a specific point about it, maybe pointing to interesting verses, words, or rhyming features. Have a reconstructed word containing your Proto-Celtic vowel, and the various occurences of it in the daughter languages you are looking at, with comments and notes on their possible evolution or on key elements you think worth pointing out. Have a map of the archaeological site you focus on, with text boxes highlighting features you want to attract attention to, and a short paragraph in each explaining what’s interesting. This will be where you put your data and part of your demonstrations.

Finally, have somewhere on the poster key references you want to attract attention to. This should not be the bibliography of your full research. If people want access to that, they can ask you directly. The references appearing on your poster have to be the main ones you used for the present topic, and I would recommend no more than five. This doesn’t need to be visually highlighted, and can be in smaller font in a box in a corner – it is for information purposes only and does not need to infringe on the main point you’re trying to make.

Doing a Multilingual Poster
Now we are in Celtic Studies, and many of us are often divided on the question of which language to use. Using our Celtic languages is important, but what if someone who speaks another (or none) would like to access our work? Wouldn’t a bilingual poster be impractical? Actually, it wouldn’t necessarily. If you keep your point succinct enough, and your topic reasonably short, you may be able to have a legible, bilingual contribution. Choose your main language: That’s the one in which you’ll have the most details and development. The second language will be shorter and more summarised. If people need more details, they can ask you and spark a conversation. I recommend making a Celtic language your main language, otherwise it will only be tokenistic. The second language can be another Celtic language, English, or depending on your context, another language relevant to your audience.

One of my own academic posters can be downloaded here as an example of what a bilingual poster (Scottish Gaelic / English) may look like in general. You’ll notice that direct quotes that were originally in English weren’t translated into Gaelic, English is in smaller font and shorter

Conclusion: Why you Should Consider a Poster?
We’re all in academia for different reasons, and some of us delight ourselves in speaking at conferences while others don’t care much and would rather be hiding in a library focusing on our research. But the truth of the matter is that one doesn’t go far in our trade without putting their work out there. It’s not always easy, and the first few conferences are often stressful and filled with impostor syndrome. An academic poster is a great way to put your toes in the water when you’re just starting. It’s also a good way to engage with our colleagues and the broader audience without the pressure of public speaking. Plus, you can easily submit the same poster for several conferences, so really you cannot lose.

You know where this is going, obviously: If you don’t feel like submitting a paper at the next Celtic Students Conference, but still would like to share your research somehow, submit a poster. It doesn’t need to be fancy, and it doesn’t need to be long. But it will be worth it.

For lazy readers: Make a poster, it’s a great way to engage with colleagues on a more personal level, and a great first step into contributing your work at conferences. The poster needs to be clear and breath visually. Choose a small, limited topic from your research (e.g. one phoneme in a phonological study; one site in archaeology; one poem in literature; a group of three or four quotes from sociological interviews) and focus on that. Have a clear and visible title, an introduction placing the poster’s topic in your research, the core data making up the topic your picked (e.g. the poem, phoneme, site, etc. with comments), a conclusion making your point, a handful of key references, your name and contact details, and any acknowledgement of funding you need to make. That’s it. If making it multilingual, pick a main language that will have the most details (preferably your Celtic language), and a secondary language with only summarised points and in smaller font. Tada!


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