Audiences for Poster Sessions
When a professional organization, say the American Heart Association, holds a conference with a poster session, the sponsors expect poster writers to present research for other informed specialists in the field. But even the professional poster might be viewed by less technically skilled readers. If you're planning a professional poster to present your research, find out as much as you can about possible audiences.
Audiences for Professional Poster Sessions
With a few key exceptions, most conferences in highly specialized fields draw only informed experts in that field. However, don't assume that those investigating your research know a lot about your topic. Ask the conference organizers for information about who generally participates in the conference. Once your research has been accepted for a conference, you should investigate the credentials of those who've attended previous conferences. Most organizations publish proceedings, listing the credentials of past presenters. These will provide you with background information, such as where your audience is from (universities, organizations) and what their interests are, as well as their past research topics.
With this background information, you can shape your poster for the specific audience. You're more likely to capture your audience's attention and to avoid presenting obvious information or talking above their heads.
If you're preparing a poster on a health or high tech topic, the audience may include media reporters. Generally, these reporters are well versed in the technical aspects of the field, and so they will be able to read your poster without difficulty. But you might want to have a list of references for background reading handy just in case someone asks for the context of your research.
If you're preparing a poster for a technical group that has close ties to business or consumer outlets, you might also have a mixed audience for your poster. Be sure to ask the conference organizers how many non-specialist viewers are likely to be present. You may not decide to change the content of your poster, but you might prepare supplementary handouts for viewers who ask about background or commercial extensions of your work.
Don Zimmerman, Journalism and Technical Communication Professor
The credentials you find listed in conference proceedings can give you a pretty good insight into at least a portion of those attending a conference. These usually provide biographical sketches--paragraphs anywhere from 50 to 100 words long. Typically, most folks won't go to a conference unless they have a chance to do a presentation and as a general rule, you won't find people there from off the streets.
Audiences for General Poster Sessions
General audiences are the hardest to write for because it's impossible to write to accommodate all the levels of background knowledge viewers will bring to your poster. Several approaches might help:
Think About Where the Poster Session Will Be Held
- Even if you know that typical viewers will include readers with almost no background knowledge about your topic, you still need to decide what's most important to present on your poster and every bit of information about the audience will help you plan your poster. If you're writing a poster for a career fair, for instance, knowing that it will be held at a high school or at a college will make a difference in your probable audience. If you were describing actuarial science for a high school career fair, you'd need to explain just what actuaries do as well as the job prospects for qualified actuaries. You'd certainly want to include the basic requirements that students will need in their first years of college, but you might decide not to detail the levels of testing that actuaries complete for full certification.
Ask the Organizers
- Ask the organizers what kinds of posters have been most successful in the past. If they have samples, look at those to determine the level of background knowledge that seems to work best. If not, ask the organizers where they've advertised the poster forum. If they expect to appeal to the entire community for a health fair, for example, you can assume little background knowledge. If they expect to draw in only math students from the highest-level courses offered in local high schools for a career fair, then assume viewers will have much more background knowledge.
Draft Alternative Texts
- Draft several alternative texts for posters and ask a wide range of viewers to tell you which ones seem clearest. You won't need to draft the entire poster for your samples. Instead, focus on one or two key sections—perhaps the text that defines the topic or scope of your poster and the section that explains what viewers should do now that they've read the information on your poster (for example, the text that describes how to stop spreading a common infection among school children). Try out your alternative versions on a few readers with the same level of background knowledge you expect of viewers of your poster. Ask specifically about which version makes the most sense or seems most interesting.
Prepare Supplemental Handouts
- Write your poster for the readers who have very little background knowledge but prepare supplemental handouts. If you take this approach, be sure to "announce" on the poster that the handouts are available. If you don't have time to prepare detailed supplements, at least put together a reading list so that the reader with some background will have a good idea of where to look next for more detailed information.
How to Deal with Mixed Audiences
Even though professional conferences draw few outsiders, occasionally someone with general interest in the topic will attend a poster session designed for experts. Especially as more conferences and poster sessions are announced on the Internet, we should expect more non-expert viewers to attend poster sessions. The best rule of thumb is not to write the poster for these readers but to have a few key references available to share with these viewers.
Marilyn Levine, Asian History Professor
The poster session audience varies according to what kind of conference you're attending. Generally, for the Social Sciences and Humanities one might assume that the audience has some expertise in various methods (such as quantitative methods, or specialized terminology); but the presenter wants also to have enough background so that a more general audience, with minimal knowledge can still obtain some knowledge from the poster. Thus, you might want to have a brief background section as one part of your paper or figures that give capsulized information.
For example, when I did a poster comparing Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, the main theme was the misconstruction of Western leadership ideas in terms of their leadership. But how did I acquaint an audience with who these leaders were? For the more general audience I developed chronologies in an attractive, laminated, and mounted display. In addition, I had photographs of people and one memo in an arranged section. For the more specialized audience I discussed the ideological development of each leader (without for example, explaining Marxism or Personalism), and then had a specific case study of their leadership in power. In the conclusion, I suggested my ideas in bulleted format as to discussion ideas based on the narrative. Thus, readers who were interested in Asian leadership could learn and ask about the more general history of these two leaders, or interchange ideas on the larger implications of their leadership. Remember, your audience will be able to directly ask you questions, or raise issues or even provide you with information.