What to Include
Unlike other longer forms of writing, posters typically need to get right to the heart of the matter. Because viewers take only a few minutes to decide whether to study your poster in detail, you need to catch their attention and present the most important information and results of your work. Deciding what to include, then, is a key element in your poster's success.
Because the purpose and audience of the poster session determine so much about content, we first take up general concerns about content and then address content for three different kinds of posters—the professional presentation poster, and the general information poster.
General Concerns about Content
Cutting and pasting a research-based or informative paper onto a poster provides too much information and will overwhelm poster viewers. To get and keep your audience's attention, consider what information sums up your work or is most important for your viewers to know. Then think about how you can best depict it—through graphics or text. Typically, the less text, the more appealing the poster is.
Because posters condense a great deal of information, the tricky part is determining what information is relevant for your particular presentation. If you depict too much information, few viewers will read your poster completely. If you depict too little information, viewers may not realize they're missing key information. One of the most common mistakes in developing a poster is relying too heavily on text and trying to include too much textual explanation.
Because viewers can take in visual information much more quickly than they can read text, use graphics whenever you can on a poster. But when you could oversimplify and thus mislead by using a graphic, stick to text instead. Don't try to include the most complete explanations of complex ideas on a poster, but do use text to convey key points and to announce that you have supplemental handouts. Also, make your text easy to read by chunking information in bullets, lists, or short paragraphs and use clear headings throughout.
Graphics are more pleasing to look at than paragraph after paragraph of text. However, if a graphic requires lengthy textual explanations, you should reconsider how effective it really is. In general, a poster graphic should speak for itself. A title or heading helps the audience understand its content, but overall you should keep written explanations to a minimum.
Professional Presentation Posters
Often, a poster captures several years' worth of work. The tricky part is determining what information is relevant for your particular presentation. If you depict too much information, it's likely no one will read your research completely. If you depict too little information, others may not realize your research's impact. Keep in mind your audience as you choose which parts of your research to emphasize. Then note these special concerns about text and graphics for the professional poster.
One of the most common mistakes made when creating professional posters is providing too much text-based explanation. After looking at numerous posters in a matter of a few hours, the last thing your audience wants to do is read your entire paper. As a general rule, you should present two to three key points from each of your paper's sections. Typically, a poster always includes an abstract, the research questions/problems, methodologies, results summarized, and conclusions. Under these headings, though, be sure to include focused information. If your results lead to multiple conclusions, ask conference organizers to include your work in multiple sessions. Also, always have copies of your paper with you for those viewers who want more extensive details.
Only rarely is research so focused and narrow that a poster can include all the data, results and conclusions of a professional research project. As you choose the information to present on the poster, don't rely solely on graphs and tables you've already drafted for a formal paper on your research. Instead, look at key information in a new light and choose the best visual forms to present the subset of data and results you decide to highlight on this poster.
General Information Posters
The danger to avoid when preparing a general information poster is oversimplification. Because viewers probably don't know much about the topic, many posters oversimplify too much. Then the information can be distorted or easily misunderstood.
As you work on your poster, keep asking yourself these questions about content: Have I presented the most important information for viewers to walk away with? Is there any way that viewers could misunderstand the key points I present?
Because your poster will be competing with all the others at the forum for viewers' attention, you need also to take time to consider the visual attractiveness of your poster. This type of poster needs to appeal to the eye as well as present information clearly.
To increase the visual appeal of your poster, especially across the large spaces that general forums occur in, you might consider using more color in the poster and a greater contrast between heading and text fonts. Your poster title or topic could be displayed in 72 point font, for instance, with headings throughout the poster in 48 point font. Do not use italic or elaborate script fonts, though. Even though they will appear distinctive from a distance, these fonts are much harder to read. If at all possible, use color in your graphs, charts, and diagrams, and use pictures or drawings wherever possible to add color and visual variety to your poster. Also, be sure to break up your textual elements with bulleted and numbered lists.
Chunking text under clear headings is one key to a successful general information poster. If you draft your poster text and discover a long block of text, think about ways to break the text into bulleted or numbered lists. Don't distort the relationships of ideas in your paragraph, but try to avoid long blocks of text. If you need to include these text blocks for clarity, be sure to have supplemental handouts that viewers can take with them to review later.
Also, wherever possible, use shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Because you'll be printing your text chunks in a large font, even two and three sentence paragraphs will appear long on the poster. Always look at trial printouts of the poster text before you decide that you don't need any more revisions for clarity and readability.