These materials were made possible thanks to the generous support from the Kemper K. Knapp Bequest Committee.
On this page, the UW-Madison Writing Center Writer's Handbook will help you construct a poster presentation based on your research project, and offer answers questions such as:
Plus, we offer sample posters from a number of disciplines.
A poster presentation advertises your project. It combines text and graphics to present your project in a way that is visually interesting and accessible. It allows you to display your work to a large group of other scholars and to talk to and receive feedback from interested viewers.
Poster sessions have been very common in the hard sciences for some time, and they have recently become more popular as forums for the presentation of research in other disciplines like the social sciences, service learning, and the humanities.
Poster presentation formats differ from discipline to discipline, but in every case, a poster should clearly articulate what you did, how you did it, why you did it, and what it contributes to your field and the larger field of human knowledge.
What goals should I keep in mind as I construct my poster?
1. Clarity of content. You will need to decide on a small number of key points that you want your viewers to take away from your presentation, and you will need to articulate those ideas clearly and concisely.
2. Visual interest and accessibility. You want viewers to notice and take interest in your poster so that they will pause to learn more about your project, and you will need the poster’s design to present your research in a way that is easy for those viewers to make easy sense of it.
In general, your audience members will fall into one of two groups:
Scholars and students from your general area:
These people will be familiar with the basic concepts you’re working with, field-specific terminology, and the main debates facing your field and informing your research. However, don’t assume that they are familiar with all of the technical details you address in your project; remember that even within a specific field of study, there are lots of sub-fields.
This audience will probably be most interested in clear, specific accounts of the what and the how of your project.
Scholars, students, and community members who are not familiar with your area of study:
These people may have a very basic understanding of your field, but they probably won’t be familiar with terms or with the specific debates that are current in your field. They’ll especially need you to avoid over-technical terms and jargon.
This audience will be less interested in specific details and more interested in the what and why of your project—that is, your broader motivations for the project and its impact on their own lives.
This audience gives you an opportunity to teach them about the interesting information you’ve been learning and to convince them that the kind of work you are doing can—eventually, perhaps—change the world!
As you can see, different audience members will be looking for different kinds of information on your poster. It’s your job to balance their needs, providing enough specific information to satisfy people from your general area while also providing enough general information to interest those outside of it.
There are a number of strategies for striking this balance. You might consider shooting for a middle ground, where you assume that viewers will know some of the more familiar terms of your discipline, but not some of the terms that are more specific to your project’s sub-area. Or you might target non-specialists as the main audience of your poster, but make a supplementary handout with more discipline-specific details for viewers more familiar with the kind of work you are doing. Talk with a professor about how to balance the needs of these two audiences.
Probably less than you would like! One of the biggest pitfalls of poster presentations is filling your poster with so much text that it overwhelms your viewers and makes it difficult for them to tell which points are the most important. Viewers should be able to skim the poster from several feet away and easily make out the most significant points.
The point of a poster is not to list every single detail of your project. The purpose of a poster is to make people see the value of your research project. To do this, you will need to determine what you want your take-home message to be. What is the single most important thiong you want your audience to understand, believe, accept, or do after they see your poster?
Once you have an idea about what that take-home message is, you will need to support it by adding some details about what you did as part of your research, how you did it, why you did it, and what it contributes to your field and the larger field of human knowledge.
This is the raw material of your research: a succinct statement of your project’s main argument (what you are trying to prove), and the evidence that supports that argument.
In the hard sciences, the what of a project is often divided into its hypothesis and its data or results. In other disciplines, the what is made up of a claim or thesis statement and the evidence used to back it up.
Remember that your viewers won’t be able to process too much detailed evidence; it’s your job to narrow down this evidence so that you’re providing the big picture. Choose a few key pieces of evidence that most clearly illustrate your take-home message. Often a chart, graph, table, photo, or other figure can help you distill this information and communicate it quickly and easily.
Include information about the process you followed as you conducted your project.
In the hard sciences and sometimes in the social sciences, this information is often presented in a section titled methods. Humanities projects do not always have a labeled methods section, but they still must provide an account of how the project progressed from an idea to a carefully constructed argument.
Again, your viewers will not have time to wade through too many technical details, so only your general approach is needed. Interested viewers can ask you for details.
Give your audience an idea about your motivation for this project. What real-world problems or questions prompted you to undertake this project? What field-specific issues or debates influenced your thinking? What information is essential for your audience to be able to understand your project and its significance?
In some disciplines, this information appears in the background or rationale section of a paper.
Help your audience to see what your project means for you and for them. How do your findings impact scholars in your field and members of the broader intellectual community?
In the hard sciences and sometimes in the social sciences, this information appears in the discussion section of a paper.
Scholars often present their work before their projects are complete. Especially if you are working on a project for a class you are taking this semester, you may not have your final results or final product by mid-April when the Symposium will take place. If that is the case, you have several options for constructing your presentation:
If you have any preliminary results, use them as examples of the kind of results you hope to obtain. Discuss the significance of these results. Do they suggest that more work is necessary? Do they suggest that the final results will be particularly promising or revolutionary? Do they suggest that you need to revise your approach? Do they suggest that the field as a whole needs to revise its ideas on the subject?
In general, you will need to simplify your wording. Long, complex sentences are difficult for viewers to absorb and may overwhelm them so much that they give up and move on to the next poster. Writing for posters must be concise, precise, and straightforward. And it must avoid jargon (the use of big words or field-specific terms in order to make your writing sound “smarter”).
Here is an example:
Wording in a paper:
This project sought to establish the ideal specifications for clinically useful wheelchair pressure mapping systems, and to use these specifications to influence the design of an innovative wheelchair pressure mapping system.
Wording on a poster:
Aims of study:
• Define the ideal wheelchair pressure mapping system
• Design a new system to meet these specifications
The effectiveness of your poster depends on how quickly and easily your audience can read and interpret it, so it is very important for you to make your poster visually striking. You only have a few seconds to grab attention as people wander past your poster; make the most of those seconds!
In general, people expect information to flow right-to-left and top-to-bottom. Viewers are best able to absorb information from a poster with several columns that progress from right to left.
Even within these columns, however, there are certain places where viewers’ eyes naturally fall first and where they expect to find information.
Imagine your poster with an upside-down triangle centered from the top to the bottom. It is in this general area that people tend to look first and is often used for the title, results, and conclusions. Secondary and supporting information tend to fall to the sides, with the lower right having the more minor information such as acknowledgements, references, and personal contact information.
This will depend, of course, on the specifics of your project. In general, though, remember that how much space you devote to each idea suggests how important that section is. Make sure that you allot the most space to your most important points.
White space is helpful to your viewers; it delineates different sections, leads the eye from one point to the next, and keeps the poster from being visually overwhelming. In general, leave 10-30% of your poster as white space.
Absolutely! Visual aids are one of the most effective ways to make your poster visually striking, and they are often a great way to communicate complex information straightforwardly and succinctly.
If your project deals with lots of empirical data, your best bet will be a chart, graph, or table summarizing that data and illustrating how that data confirms your hypothesis.
If you don’t have empirical data, you have other options for visual aids. You may be able to incorporate photographs, illustrations, annotations, and so on in order to pique your viewers’ interest, communicate your motivation, demonstrate why some aspect of your project is particularly interesting or unique.
Of course, don’t incorporate visual aids just for the sake of having a pretty picture on your poster! Make sure your visual aids contribute to your overall message; they should convey some piece of information that your viewers wouldn’t otherwise get just from reading your poster’s text.
There are a number of tricks you can use to aid readability and emphasize crucial ideas:
• Use a large font. Don’t make the text smaller in order to fit more onto the poster. Instead, make sure that 95% of the text on your poster can be read from 4 feet away. If viewers can’t make out the text from a distance, they’re likely to walk on past your poster without reading it at all.
• Choose a sans-serif font like Helvetica or Verdana, not a serif font, like Times New Roman (and don't use a monospace font like Courier, where every letter has the same width). For large print like the print on a poster, sans-serif fonts are easier to read because they don't have extraneous hooks on every letter. Here is an example of the difference between sans-serif and serif fonts:
• Once you have chosen a font, keep it consistent. Don’t single space your text. Use 1.5- or double-spacing to make the text easier for your viewers to read.
For main points:
• Use bold, italicized, or colored fonts, or enclose text in boxes. Save this kind of emphasis for only a few key words, phrases, or sentences. Too much emphasized text makes it harder, not easier, to locate important points.
• AVOID USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. IT CAN BE HARD TO READ.
• Make your main points easy to find by setting them off with bullets or numbers.
It is important to remember that when you are standing in front of your poster, you—and what you choose to say—are as important as the actual poster. You will need to be ready to talk about your project, answer viewers’ questions, provide additional details about your project, and so on.
Once your poster is finished, you should re-familiarize yourself with the larger project you’re presenting. Remind yourself about those details you ended up having to leave out of the poster, so that you will be able to bring them up in discussions with viewers. Then, practice, practice, practice!
Show your poster to friends, classmates, and your professor before the actual day of the presentation to get a feel for how viewers might respond. Prepare a four- to five-minute overview of the project, where you walk these pre-viewers through the poster, drawing their attention to the most critical points and filling in interesting details as needed. Make note of the kinds of questions these pre-viewers have, and make sure you are ready to answer those questions. You might even consider making a supplemental handout that provides additional information or answers predictable questions.
Don’t feel as if you have to start talking to viewers the minute they stop in front of your poster. Give them a few moments to read and process the information.
Once the viewers have had time to familiarize themselves, offer to guide them through the poster. Say something like “Hello. Thanks for stopping to view my poster. Would you like a guided tour of my project?” This kind of greeting often works better than simply asking “Do you have any questions?” because after only a few moments, viewers might not have had time to come up with questions, even though they are interested in hearing more about your project.
No! Make sure you are familiar enough with your poster that you can talk about it without looking at it. Use the poster as a visual aid, pointing to it when you need to draw viewers’ attention to a chart, photograph, or particularly interesting point.
Sample Research Posters
Good luck with your poster presentation! And don't forget that you can make an appointment with the Writing Center to work on your poster presentation. Just give us a call at 263-1992.