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The Power of the Poster Session

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Reposted from Teaching Thursday

Elizabeth Howell, Graduate Student, Space Studies, University of North Dakota

Bill Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

At last week’s scholarly forum Elizabeth Howell, a professional journalist and space studies graduate student, and Bill Caraher, an assistant professor in the department of history, decided to write a post that tried to capture what they liked the most about the poster session.


At first, they thought that they might combine their posts to make a single list of tips for a great poster, but their impressions were so different and so complementary, that they decided to preserve their individual perspectives in a single post.

By Elizabeth Howell

Years ago there was a show that ran on television where the host would throw a dart at a map of the United States, show up in the town and find a phone booth (remember those?), then open up the phone book and pick a name at random.

The host would then show up at that person’s door and have them tell a story – tell the most interesting thing about their lives.

That was the same experience I felt strolling along the posters at last week’s Graduate Forum. There were students who had put years of their life into a few words – often, drawing on personal experience to bring their research to life.

Take Jessica Steinhauer, who became inspired to look into distance-delivered mental health when, as a nurse practitioner, she had the chance to try it out herself.

“There’s a perception that it’s not as good of a therapeutic treatment, but that’s maybe a generational thing,” she pointed out, saying that older people just may not be as comfortable on a computer or over the telephone.

I saw so many posters where students brought their personal experiences to the table – whether it be finding better fertilizer for crops, treating selective mutism through art or studying the degradation of moraines in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

And really, the best research is about storytelling – but how best to convey that on the limited amount of space that a poster provides?

  • Be passionate about your subject. If you enjoy what you do, you’re far more likely to put the effort into making the poster look like more than just a big block of text.
  • Make your research about people. Admittedly this is tougher when working in the pure sciences or in engineering, but there are still ways to bring humans into the equation. How does the research affect the public? How will it benefit humanity – or even a small group of humanity?
  • Think of how you’d describe the research to your grandmother. Imagine a person who has no background in your work – that would be the average person reading your poster on the Scholarly Forum floor. Keep your words non-technical and the description of your research to the point.
  • Include questions, and avenues for future research. This encourages the audience – your readers – to participate and to suggest their own ideas, putting the core of the story in their own minds.
  • Most of all, be present at the poster. “Present” doesn’t mean checking your iPhone, or chatting exclusively with your buddy at the poster next door. Talk to the people that come by. Conversations can be tough, but every person you met was once a stranger – and you never know what you can learn.


By Bill Caraher

I love Elizabeth’s emphasis on the poster as story telling, and, in particular, her emphasis on the poster as the basis for a conversation about research both as an ongoing concern and as something that will continue into the future. And she’s right, of course, people make the poster! But there are some ways that draw people to the poster and to intrigue them enough to draw them into conversation, and here are my observations along those lines.

  • Flashy colors. A few of the best and most noticeable posters used some kind of flashy color to attract my eye. While I know that poster sessions shouldn’t necessarily be driven by visceral reactions to common advertising ploys, bright colors do draw the attention to content.
  • Visual Content. The best posters also relied heavily on pictures, charts, diagrams, and other illustrations. Posters are really ideal for communicating visual data. Our poster included too much text and it was tricky for people to find the time and space to stop and read a text heavy poster in the bustle of the poster session. Some of the best posters communicated their message through straight forward diagrams and visual images.
  • Non-linear. I’ll admit that despite my training as a historian, I find linearity boring.  Posters that depicted linear processes from one stage to the next did not attract me. I found myself drawn to posters that captured non-linear character of processes.  Posters are a great place to experiment with non-linear explanations and descriptions because they allow the reader to engage the content of the poster from multiple starting points. Just as long blocks of text make engaging of the content of a poster difficult in the bustle of a crowded ballroom, a non-linear approach allows viewers to engage the content of the poster from different angles and directions.
  • So many icons. I really liked the posters that marked the project’s affiliation, partners, and funding through icons. It made it easy to understand the institutional basis for the research without having to read some small thank-you text at the bottom of the poster board. It reminded me of the importance to developing a slick logo or icon for our organization!
  • QR Codes and more information. One thing that our history poster DID do right is to include QR codes to allow the viewer to quickly get additional information on the material present. QR codes worked so much better than a clumsy url directing the viewer to a website. In fact, the QR codes worked so well that they actually drew attention and comment to our poster!

Aerial view of the poster session


Written by School of Graduate Studies

March 17, 2011 at 9:26 am

Posted in Events

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  1. […] great summaries of the project, methodology, results and suggestions of future research. (An earlier post from the Scholarly Forum highlights some good criteria for an attractive and impactful […]

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