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This is a slide that reads Use blank words of text. The possible answers are A, 50 to 100 words, B, 100 to 300 words, C, 300 to 800 words, and D, 800 to 1200 words.

How Do I Love This Poster? Let Me Count the Words.

Two weeks ago, I realized that one of my fundamental beliefs about the world was wrong.

Over the past several years, I’ve facilitated a bunch of workshops on designing and presenting scientific posters. Broadly, those workshops cover what content should go on a poster, as well as design considerations like colors and fonts.

One of the design guidelines that I’ve shared in every. single. workshop. is that a poster should include about 300 to 800 words of text. And, seriously folks, I didn’t pluck that range out of nowhere. If a poster resource gave a suggested word count, at least two thirds of the time, it was in that range (Exhibits A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I). The other third of resources suggested even more words than that (Exhibits J, K, L, M).

Here’s a poster (which I helped design) that I’ve shown in most of my workshops, as an example of good poster design:

This is a research poster titled Prevening Intimate Partner Violence Among Teens Who Are Pregnant and Parenting: Results from a Pilot Study of an Adapted Group Based Program. It was authored by Marni L. Kan P H D, Lori-Ann Palen P H D, Judith W Herman R N P H D, Mark E Fineberg P H D and Jennifer Hill M P H.

In one of those workshops, a participant (a technical editor who I love working with) asked, “How many words are on that poster?”

Uhhhhh…I had no idea. I figured that, if it looked legible and uncluttered to me, it probably fell within the recommended range. And I didn’t have the tons* of time I’d need to count up all of those words. So, I just said that I wasn’t sure and moved on.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was preparing a poster workshop for graduate students in Duke University’s Science & Society program. And I saw that 300-800-word guidance again. And a disembodied voice whispered, cinematically, “Count the words, Lori.”

I started with an (in retrospect) pretty terribly designed poster that I did in 2007, during graduate school:

This is a research poster titled Inconsistent Reports of Sexual Intercourse Among South African High School Students. It was authored by Lori-Ann Palen, Edward A Smith, Linda L Caldwell, Alan J Fly sher, Lisa Wegner, and Tanya Vergnani. There is a lot of very small text, and two small bar graphs.

It clocked in at…get ready for it…about** 661 words.

WHAAAAAAT?

So, you’re telling me that that inexcusable wall of text comes in under the word limit that just about everyone on the internet recommends? But it’s THE INTERNET! No one’s ever been wrong on THE INTERNET!***

I started counting a bunch of the posters that, to me, looked like they had a reasonable amount of text.

Remake of the 2007 poster: 249 words

This is an image of a research poster. The title is "Yep, I'm a virgin...again. Inconsistent reports of sexual intercourse among South African high school students." The Data Soapbox logo is in the upper right corner, along with the following note: Original poster citation: Palen, L., Smith, E. A., Caldwell, L. L., Flisher, A. J., Wegner, L., & Vergnani, T. (2007, November). Inconsistent reports of sexual intercourse among South African high school students. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, Washington, DC. Research funding: NIH R01 DA01749, NIH T32 DA017629-01A1. The introductory text says: "Accurate measurement of sexual behavior is criticalfor public health surveillance and evaluations of sexual health programs and policies. However, measurement of private behaviors, like sex, is prone to error. Previous studies have shown that between 4 and 12% of adolescents report their lifetime sexual behavior inconsistently over time(i.e., report being sexually active in a survey, and then report never having had sex in a subsequent survey). If we know more about the types of people who tend to inconsistently report sexual behaviors, it might suggest strategies to reduce measurement error." There is a box called "Study Design," which shows that the study involved 2,414 students from Mitchell's Plain, South Africa. They completed 5 surveys: at the beginning and ending of 8th grade, the beginning and end of 9th grade, and the beginning of 10th grade. The sample was restricted to 713 students who reported lifetime sexual intercourse in at least one survey. 40% reported never having had sex after reporting being sexually active in a previous survey. Next, there is a box titled "Logistic Regression Results." The first column is titled statisticall significant predictors of inconsistency, and it lists inconsistently reported lifetime substance use, including use of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and inhalants. The second column is titled Non-significant predictors of inconsistency, and it lists demographics (including gender and age) and motivation/ability to respond accurately (including having failed a grade in school, inconsistently reporting gender, and inconsistently reporting birth year). The final box is titled "Potential Strategies to Reduce Measurement Inconsistency." This box lists the following: • Give extremely clear and specific directions for how to interpret and respond to risk behavior questions. • Maximize verbal, written, and physical assurances of privacy. • Use longitudinally-linked electronic surveys to identify and remedy inconsistencies during survey administration.

 

Poster about online dating and politics by Matthew Easton, which I think has a great (i.e., small) amount of text: 267 words

 

Graphical abstract I designed (which I think would make an acceptable poster): 172 words

This is a graphical abstract. The title is The Case of the Disappearing Teaspoons: Longitudinal Cohort Study of the Displacement of Teaspoons in an Australian Research Institute. The authors of the article on which this abstract is based are Megan S C Lim, Margaret E Hellard, and Campbell K Aitken. The original article was published in the British Medican Journal in 2004, volume 131, pages 24 to 31. The abstract says: Teaspoons are an essential part of office life. The rapid rate of teaspoon disappearance shows their availability, and therefore office life, is under constant assault. Investigators placed 70 teaspoons in eight tea rooms at their research institute. After five months, 56 teaspoons, or 80 percent, had disappeared. Teaspoon loss was greater in communal tea rooms than in program specific tea rooms. Investigators estimated that about 18 million teaspoons fo missing in Melbourne, Australia, each year. How much is 18 million teaspoons? Laid end-to-end they measure 2,700 kilometers, or the length of the coastline of Mozambique. Their mass is 360 metric tons, or the mass of four adult blue whales. To maintain a workable number of teaspoons, 70 teaspoons for 140 employees, the institute would need to purchase 253 teaspoons per year, at a cost of about 75 U S dollars. This graphical abstract was created by Data Soapbox.

 

And how many words are on that poster I often show in workshops? By my rough count, 994. In its defense, it’s wider than the average poster (i.e., has more real estate), and I counted even the words in the graphs and figures, which don’t always get included in poster word count guidance. That being said, I concede that there are places where the text could be reduced.

So, long story short, I have revised my long-held belief about poster word count. I’ve booked my ticket on the sub-300-words-in-most-situations train. And, in preparing this post, I learned that there’s already at least one other science communicator on that train! Check out Dr. Tullio Rossi’s great post on How to Design an Award-Winning Conference Poster.

Readers, I’d love to get your reactions to my latest thoughts on poster text. How many words have appeared on your posters? Do you think that was too much or just enough? Weigh in below!

*Narrator: Minutes.

**Please excuse any minor counting errors across the couple-thousand poster-words shown in this post.

***Narrator: She is being sarcastic.

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