Because you'll have very little space to explain your ideas and your readers will take very little time to skim your poster (usually about five minutes), you must communicate your main points quickly and clearly. If your poster sends a muddled message or takes too long to figure out, readers won't bother to work through the confusion. Instead, they'll move on to the next poster. So checking clarity is vital. Keep three points in mind:
Jargon or specialized language can be a valuable shortcut for the poster writer. But you can use jargon terms only if your audience is knowledgeable enough to understand them. The general information poster will rarely use jargon but will instead provide straightforward definitions of key terms and concepts. The professional presentation poster may use jargon if the conference organizers describe an audience likely to know these terms.
As you think about your target audience, examine each jargon term and decide if it needs to be redefined in more general language.
- Sentence Length and Connections
The typical advice for poster writers is to "use short sentences." Like most advice, you can't follow this maxim all the time. Shorter sentences do work better than long ones on posters, but as you cut sentences be sure not to lose track of how each sentence relates to the next. Many writers create short sentences by cutting long sentences apart and taking out connecting words, such as "because," "then," "after," "therefore," "while." When you take out the connecting words that show the logical relationships between sentences, your text can become harder to understand. So always revise sentence with overall clarity in mind. If only a long sentence can show a complex but necessary relationship between ideas, use the long sentence.
- Clarity and Layout
Because a poster will often separate chunks of texts or visuals that would appear together in a long paper, the layout of a poster can enhance or destroy the clarity of the overall point. After you've drafted chunks of your poster, try various arrangements of the chunks on a large tabletop or even the floor. Do you need arrows to direct readers' eyes from one chunk to the next in a logical sequence? Do you need to number headings to show the flow of ideas? Should you combine chunks to show clearly a close relationship of the ideas? Work back and forth between revising for clarity and arrangement for clarity before you decide that your poster is ready to assemble.
Readability refers to the ease of comprehending your poster. Typical "readability" indexes stress using short, familiar words and short, simple sentences. But a poster may need to express complex or difficult material quickly, and so short, easy words and sentences may not work for your poster.
A good way to check readability is to read your poster aloud. If you can "hear" your poster and it makes sense, you probably have a good start. If you stumble over any sentences, revise those. Then ask a few people typical of your target audience to read aloud a sample layout of your poster while you listen. Note when they stumble over sentences or puzzle over missing connections between sentences. Watch how they move from chunk to chunk of the poster and consider rearranging to enhance the flow of ideas. The more work you do to insure that readers can comprehend your ideas, the more successful your poster will be.
Visual presentation of a poster is just as important as clarity and readability. If readers can understand your ideas, but only when they move to 18 inches from the poster, then you've lost most of your audience. If readers slow down their reading because you've used a script font, your poster may be lovely but uncommunicative. A successful poster combines clear ideas with optimal visual cues to make understanding your ideas as easy as possible.
We cover issues of layout and design in detail in another section, Putting It All Together, but it's important to begin revising early with visual aspects in mind.