Writing Strategies for Poster Sessions
Developing your poster’s content may seem like a breeze. After all, you just have to cut and paste parts of your research onto the board, right? Wrong! To be successful, a poster requires planning how you will depict specific information and providing text and graphics to capture your audience’s attention.
The final material that goes on a poster is quite unlike what most researchers and writers generally write for other contexts. The poster session calls for much more attention to visual impact than other forms of writing do. And the restricted space of a poster requires careful condensing of ideas that we would write about at length for other forums.
In this section, we suggest a few strategies that may help your draft and revise your poster.
Focus, Focus, Focus
Unlike a research-based paper, which might run from 15 to 80 pages (or more), a standard poster session will include only about 3-4 pages of single-spaced text or graphics in 12 point font (i.e., before formatting for the poster). In other words, writers for posters have very little space to fill, particularly if they have to explain complex ideas or research. The key to crafting a good poster, then, is to focus as narrowly as possible on the central ideas you need to convey. You just won't have room to explain relationships among ideas in any detail, so pick out what's central to your topic and concentrate on that narrow focus.
When Kate Kiefer and Mike Palmquist completed an in-depth research study of four classrooms in 1993-1994, they knew that they couldn't present all their results on a poster. Instead, they drafted two preliminary research papers (running 30 pages and 40 pages) and then chose a focal point from all the data for one poster session. The poster session text and graphics fill only three pages (not yet formatted for the poster) because these authors focused on one key result—students had more contacts with teachers in computer classrooms than in traditional classrooms. (A complete discussion of their work eventually turned into a 300-page manuscript for a book.)
Working From a Drafted Paper
Many writers find it easier to draft a complete research paper and then to use that draft to help focus on key points for the poster than to begin with the poster format as a starting point for writing. When you start with a draft, you can see more easily the range of material you have to choose from, and obvious focal points for the poster might jump out. Moreover, the organization of the draft may help you see clear headings for parts of the poster.
Once you have your research paper, then you can cut parts from the draft to begin compiling text and graphics for the poster. Be careful, though, not to stop at that point. The compiled material will still be too dense if you don't revise carefully for the poster format.
Working From Notes
Some writers prefer to work from notes rather than from a draft of a paper because they see the full draft as too dense or detailed to revise for a poster. Especially for a general information poster, you may prefer to move from notes directly into drafting chunks for the poster. If you draft from notes, be sure to state the key pieces of information that need to be included on the poster. Focus on those key points and work back and forth between key information and possible headings that cluster the information. Question yourself about audience and focus over and over as you flesh out the chunks of your poster. And then move into revising to be sure that you have included clear and appropriate information.
Clark Harris, Gary Maricle, and Bob Birkenholz offer this advice for drafting from notes:
A working title and list of facts or points to be communicated should be prepared. A sequential ordering of the points and an outline of the presentation is also necessary. By making a flow diagram, grouping ideas and facts, an orderly design may be sketched to organize the flow of information being presented. In preparing text, a good general guideline is 'keep it simple.' The audience will only carry a few ideas away with them no matter how grandiose the presentation. The desired message should be expressed in as few words as possible.
The poster presentation is a summary or abstract of an idea, activity, or research. Only the amount of information that can be absorbed by the viewer in five minutes or less should be presented. If more time than this is required by the reviewer, the presenter can verbally communicate additional information to the interested party. Pictures and words must work together to amplify, clarify, and extend the focal point of the poster. Adding details and specific examples is acceptable: however, 'busy' or 'wordy' posters can interfere with the process of effective communication. Above all, when planning poster presentations, read and follow the instructions and guidelines provided by the sponsoring organization.
The contents of a poster are similar to a research paper, slide presentation, or other scientific communication. The poster should flow from left to right and top to bottom.
Harris, C., Maricle, G.L., & Birkenholz, B. (1990). "Poster Presentation: The Key to Communication of Ideas." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Agricultural Education/American Vocational Association (Cincinnati, OH, December 6, 1990). ED333491
Revising an early draft of poster material involves a process unlike that called for by most traditional papers. Most writers don't worry much, if at all, about layout issues when they write typical papers, but the poster writer needs to consider layout early and often as she writes and revises poster text and graphics.