5 Steps to a Killer Poster Presentation

With thanks to Lawrence G Miller PHD and CEO, Miller & Associates for this guest posting. Follow Lawrence G Miller on Twitter @lawrencegmiller or LinkedIn 

A big piece of paper with text and images?  A pretty simple form of educational technology, but this is a format that can be as richly engaging as any our more contemporary digital formats.  It’s a poster!

The exact origins of the use of a single sheet of paper to encapsulate research findings are not at all clear.  In the late 1960s scientific research conferences exhibited simple posters that consisted of graphs, diagrams, and pictures, but did not contain text other than captions.  Within a few years, several scientific conferences established the poster presentation sessions that established the format pretty much as we have known it.  Today, posters have become a popular format for virtually all academic disciples, including education.

There is a certain challenge to excerpting research data or summarizing a complex project on one piece of paper.  You can think of it as akin to the Twitter paradigm of a message in 140 characters of text.  Yet, a well-designed, attractive poster can be a great learning experience in itself.  The design process forces the creator to synthesize and articulate their project or study.  Further, the experience of displaying the poster and engaging in a dialogue with interested conference participants is an extraordinarily rich experience with multiple benefits.
Here are five suggestions that will help you create a great poster and maximize the benefits of presenting in this format.

1.     Let It Flow, Let It Flow
A great poster has a logical flow to it.  An on-looker should be able to follow the intent of the poster.  In a more formal scientific-style poster, the material that is on the left side would be the set-up.  Here one would find the purpose of the research depicted on the poster, the research questions, and the methodology used.  The center area on the poster usually displays the data results of the study.  The right side is where one finds the interpretations of the data and the conclusions of the study.  The bottom right is typically where the bibliography would reside and any acknowledgments such as funding sources.

2.     Follow the Rules, Break the Rules
A poster that is entered in a competition should make sure to include all of the elements specified by the competition rules.  Reading and understanding the rules will make certain that your poster will receive all of the points that are assigned for specific areas.  However, there is room for creativity.  For example, a vertical format poster (think portrait as opposed to landscape) can make a poster distinctive.  One creative poster was constructed of 6 separate posters assembled with wooden slats.  It followed the rules for special dimensions, yet made a distinctive and effective presentation.

3.     Pictures Tell the Story
Images not only are an important way to display data, they also are a crucial design element.  Appropriate charts and graphs are typical of good posters, but sometimes a photographic image or an illustration will say something that numbers cannot.  Images should be really good photos or very simple charts or graphs.  Do not overload your images with information as they will lose their effectiveness in attracting people to stop at your poster.

4.     Clean, Simple Fonts
Nothing makes a poster look more cluttered than the use of inappropriate fonts.  Using fonts such as Arial, Franklin Gothic, and Futura make a poster look nice, but they are also very readable.  Do not mix fonts.  You can use Bold and Italic, or slightly different versions of a font family to call attention to the elements of your poster in terms of its flow.  Also, avoid using all capital letters – upper and lower case makes for easier reading.  Keep in mind that your poster will first be viewed by people who are “shopping” for topics of interest and will not initially be very close to your poster.  Your headline at the top must be large enough for people to easily ready it from a distance of five to ten feet.

5.     Engage During and After the Session
The real beauty of a poster presentation is that only those who care about the topic are likely to come and visit with you during a presentation session.  This one-on-one engagement can yield some of the richest experiences possible for both the presenter and that audience of one who cares about the content.  Be certain to have a handout that gives more depth than the posters could ever present.  The handout is where you can go into detail about your project or research.  And, don’t forget your business cards.

Just one more thing . . .
Creating a poster is a great learning experience.  Its use should be considered by instructors at all levels and a valid “deliverable” for group or individual work.

Hess, G.R., K. Tosney, and L. Liegel. 2014. Creating Effective Poster Presentations. 

Office of Undergraduate Research, Poster Presentations, University of Texas at Austin, 

Waquet, Francoise, Posters and Poster Sessions: A History, Center for History of Physics Newsletter, Volume XL, No. 2, Fall 2008