Write a Good Abstract

Posted on by Drew in advent speaker tips.

Any good piece of writing has both an audience and a purpose.

One of the hardest parts of completing a call for papers submission is coming up with a good abstract for your presentation. But what should a good abstract include?

Any good piece of writing has both an audience and a purpose. The difficulty with writing a good abstract for a call for papers is that a couple of short paragraphs need to serve two different audiences with two different, but related, purposes.

The first audience is the individuals or panel of people who will be putting together the event at which you hope to present. Their goal is to find interesting content for their event, delivered by experienced, authoritative and engaging speakers. They want to find great content, so as a writer you’re trying to really sell them on your presentation and make it sound exciting and compelling. This can result in a description that isn’t inaccurate, but certainly shines a specific type of light on the material.

The issue can arise when, after being selected to present at an event, the organisers don’t give you the opportunity to revise your abstract. More often than not, the abstract from the CfP is added to the event website and schedule as the definitive description of your talk. It’s at this point that it reaches its second audience.

For single-track events, that’s not so bad. The audience that is trying to make a decision whether to attend the event isn’t all that different from the selection panel reading the CfP proposals. No, the issue is more with larger multi-track events. With these events, attendees are given a wide array of options of presentations to attend, and usually all they have to work from is your talk title and abstract.

People in this situation really want to know exactly what the content of the presentation is and what they’ll learn from it. They need to make a choice and then commit to a session, as if they get that choice wrong and pick based on a misleading abstract, they’ll have missed the start of any of the alternatives they might wanted to have switched to.

So how do you go about writing a good abstract that works for both the CfP selectors and the audience member trying to make a critical decision about which room to pick after a coffee break? Turns out if you’re mindful of those two audiences it’s not so hard.

Try to include three key points:

  1. Tell them what’s exciting. This is the part of the superlatives and to get the CfP reviewers on board. “x is the biggest industry change in years, and everyone needs to learn more about it!”
  2. State what will be covered. Let the audience know what the main points of the presentation are. “You’ll find out about x and y, and how using z can benefit your workflow.”
  3. Say who it’s for. Help the audience be self-selecting with regard to their skill and experience level, and at the same time help the CfP reviewers see if this presentation matches their target audience. “This is great for people who know a little about x but what to take it further.”

With a little bit of care and thought as to the different audiences, writing a great presentation abstract isn’t as hard as you’d think!

Advent speaker tips: this is part of a series of tips for public speakers that we’re posting throughout advent. Check back daily during December for more.

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