Helen Kara responds to our previously published guide to writing abstracts and elaborates specifically on the differences for conference abstracts. She offers tips for writing an enticing abstract for conference organisers and an engaging conference presentation. Written grammar is different from spoken grammar. Remember that conference organisers are trying to create as interesting and stimulating an event as they can, and variety is crucial.
The Impact blog has an ‘essential ‘how-to’ guide to writing good abstracts’. While this post makes some excellent points, its title and first sentence don’t differentiate between article and conference abstracts. The standfirst talks about article abstracts, but then the first sentence is, ‘Abstracts tend to be rather casually written, perhaps at the beginning of writing when authors don’t yet really know what they want to say, or perhaps as a rushed afterthought just before submission to a journal or a conference.’ This, coming so soon after the title, gives the impression that the post is about both article and conference abstracts.
I think there are some fundamental differences between the two. For example:
- Article abstracts are presented to journal editors along with the article concerned. Conference abstracts are presented alone to conference organisers. This means that journal editors or peer reviewers can say e.g. ‘great article but the abstract needs work’, while a poor abstract submitted to a conference organiser is very unlikely to be accepted.
- Articles are typically 4,000-8,000 words long. Conference presentation slots usually allow 20 minutes so, given that – for good listening comprehension – presenters should speak at around 125 words per minute, a conference presentation should be around 2,500 words long.
- Articles are written to be read from the page, while conference presentations are presented in person. Written grammar is different from spoken grammar, and there is nothing so tedious for a conference audience than the old-skool approach of reading your written presentation from the page. Fewer people do this now – but still, too many. It’s unethical to bore people! You need to engage your audience, and conference organisers will like to know how you intend to hold their interest.
Image credit: allanfernancato (Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain)
The competition for getting a conference abstract accepted is rarely as fierce as the competition for getting an article accepted. Some conferences don’t even receive as many abstracts as they have presentation slots. But even then, they’re more likely to re-arrange their programme than to accept a poor quality abstract. And you can’t take it for granted that your abstract won’t face much competition. I’ve recently read over 90 abstracts submitted for the Creative Research Methods conference in May – for 24 presentation slots. As a result, I have four useful tips to share with you about how to write a killer conference abstract.
First, your conference abstract is a sales tool: you are selling your ideas, first to the conference organisers, and then to the conference delegates. You need to make your abstract as fascinating and enticing as possible. And that means making it different. So take a little time to think through some key questions:
- What kinds of presentations is this conference most likely to attract? How can you make yours different?
- What are the fashionable areas in your field right now? Are you working in one of these areas? If so, how can you make your presentation different from others doing the same? If not, how can you make your presentation appealing?
There may be clues in the call for papers, so study this carefully. For example, we knew that the Creative Research Methods conference, like all general methods conferences, was likely to receive a majority of abstracts covering data collection methods. So we stated up front, in the call for papers, that we knew this was likely, and encouraged potential presenters to offer creative methods of planning research, reviewing literature, analysing data, writing research, and so on. Even so, around three-quarters of the abstracts we received focused on data collection. This meant that each of those abstracts was less likely to be accepted than an abstract focusing on a different aspect of the research process, because we wanted to offer delegates a good balance of presentations.
Currently fashionable areas in the field of research methods include research using social media and autoethnography/ embodiment. We received quite a few abstracts addressing these, but again, in the interests of balance, were only likely to accept one (at most) in each area. Remember that conference organisers are trying to create as interesting and stimulating an event as they can, and variety is crucial.
Second, write your abstract well. Unless your abstract is for a highly academic and theoretical conference, wear your learning lightly. Engaging concepts in plain English, with a sprinkling of references for context, is much more appealing to conference organisers wading through sheaves of abstracts than complicated sentences with lots of long words, definitions of terms, and several dozen references. Conference organisers are not looking for evidence that you can do really clever writing (save that for your article abstracts), they are looking for evidence that you can give an entertaining presentation.
Third, conference abstracts written in the future tense are off-putting for conference organisers, because they don’t make it clear that the potential presenter knows what they’ll be talking about. I was surprised by how many potential presenters did this. If your presentation will include information about work you’ll be doing in between the call for papers and the conference itself (which is entirely reasonable as this can be a period of six months or more), then make that clear. So, for example, don’t say, ‘This presentation will cover the problems I encounter when I analyse data with homeless young people, and how I solve those problems’, say, ‘I will be analysing data with homeless young people over the next three months, and in the following three months I will prepare a presentation about the problems we encountered while doing this and how we tackled those problems’.
Fourth, of course you need to tell conference organisers about your research: its context, method, and findings. It will also help enormously if you can take a sentence or three to explain what you intend to include in the presentation itself. So, perhaps something like, ‘I will briefly outline the process of participatory data analysis we developed, supported by slides. I will then show a two-minute video which will illustrate both the process in action and some of the problems encountered. After that, again using slides, I will outline each of the problems and how we tackled them in practice.’ This will give conference organisers some confidence that you can actually put together and deliver an engaging presentation.
So, to summarise, to maximise your chances of success when submitting conference abstracts:
- Make your abstract fascinating, enticing, and different.
- Write your abstract well, using plain English wherever possible.
- Don’t write in the future tense if you can help it – and, if you must, specify clearly what you will do and when.
- Explain your research, and also give an explanation of what you intend to include in the presentation.
While that won’t guarantee success, it will massively increase your chances. Best of luck!
This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Dr Helen Kara has been an independent social researcher in social care and health since 1999, and is an Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham. She is on the Board of the UK’s Social Research Association, with lead responsibility for research ethics. She also teaches research methods to practitioners and students, and writes on research methods. Helen is the author of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners (2012) and Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences (April 2015), both published by Policy Press. She did her first degree in Social Psychology at the LSE.
Personally, I’d rather not see reading a presentation written off so easily, for three off the cuff reasons:
1) Reading can be done really well, especially if the paper was written to be read.
2) It seems to be well suited to certain kinds of qualitative studies, particularly those that are narrative driven.
3) It seems to require a different kind of focus or concentration — one that requires more intensive listening (as opposed to following an outline driven presentation that’s supplemented with visuals, i.e., slides).
Admittedly, I’ve read some papers before, and writing them to be read can be a rewarding process, too. I had to pay attention to details differently: structure, tone, story, etc. It can be an insightful process, especially for works in progress.
Sean, thanks for your comment, which I think is a really useful addition to the discussion. I’ve sat through so many turgid not-written-to-be-read presentations that it never occurred to me they could be done well until I heard your thoughts. What you say makes a great deal of sense to me, particularly with presentations that are consciously ‘written to be read’ out loud. I think where they can get tedious is where a paper written for the page is read out loud instead, because for me that really doesn’t work. But I love to listen to stories, and I think of some of the quality storytelling that is broadcast on radio, and of audiobooks that work well (again, in my experience, they don’t all), and I do entirely see your point.
Helen, I appreciate your encouraging me remark on such a minor part of your post(!), which I enjoyed reading and will share. And thank you for the reply and the exchange on Twitter.
Very much enjoyed your post Helen. And your subsequent comments Sean. On the subject of the reading of a presentation. I agree that some people can write a paper specifically to be read and this can be done well. But I would think that this is a dying art. Perhaps in the humanities it might survive longer.
Reading through the rest of your post I love the advice. I’m presenting at my first LIS conference next month and had I read your post first I probably would have written it differently. Advice for the future for me.
Martin – and Sean – thank you so much for your kind comments. Maybe there are steps we can take to keep the art alive; advocates for it, such as Sean, will no doubt help. And, Martin, if you’re presenting next month, you must have done perfectly well all by yourself! Congratulations on the acceptance, and best of luck for the presentation.
Great article! Obvious at it may seem, a point zero may be added before the other four: which _are_ your ideas?
A scientific writing coach told me she often runs a little exercise with her students. She tells them to put away their (journal) abstract and then asks them to summarize the bottom line in three statements. After some thinking, the students come up with an answer. Then the coach tells the students to reach for the abstract, read it and look for the bottom line they just summarised. Very often, they find that their own main observations and/or conclusions are not clearly expressed in the abstract.
PS I love the line “It’s unethical to bore people!”
Thanks for your comment, Olle – that’s a great point. I think something happens to us when we’re writing, in which we become so clear about what we want to say that we think we’ve said it even when we haven’t. Your friend’s exercise sounds like a great trick for finding out when we’ve done that. And thanks for the compliments, too!
Thank you very much for the tips, they are really helpful. I have actually been accepted to present a PuchaKucha presentation in an educational interdisciplinary conference at my university. my presentation would be about the challenges faced by women in my country. So, it would be just a review of the literature. from what I’ve been reading, conferences are about new research and your new ideas… Is what I’m doing wrong??? that’s my first conference I’ll be speaking in and I’m afraid to ruin it!!! I will be really grateful about any advice ^_^
First of all: you’re not going to ruin the conference, even if you think you made a bad presentation. You should always remember that people are not very concerned about you–they are mostly concerned about themselves. Take comfort in that thought!
Here are some notes:
• If it is a Pecha Kucha night, you stand in front of a mixed audience. Remember that scientists understand layman’s stuff, but laymen don’t understand scientists stuff.
• Pecha Kucha is also very VISUAL! Remember that you can’t control the flow of slides – they change every 20 seconds.
• Make your main messages clear. You can use either one of these templates.
A. Which are the THREE most important observations, conclusions, implications or messages from your study?
Inform them! (LOGOS)
Engage them! (PATHOS)
Make an impression! (ETHOS)
What do you do as a scientist/is a study about?
What problem(s) do you address?
How is your research different?
Why should I care?
Good luck and remember to focus on (1) the audience, (2) your mission, (3) your stuff and (4) yourself, in that order.
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Thank you Dr Kara for the great guide on creating killer abstracts for conferences. I am preparing to write an abstract for my first conference presentation and this has been educative and insightful. ‘ I choose to be ethical and not bore my audience’.
Thank you Judy for your kind comment. I wish you luck with your abstract and your presentation. Helen
Dear Dr. Helen Kara,
Can there be an abstract for a topic presentation? I need to present a topic in a conference.I searched in the net and couldnt find anything like an abstract for a topic presentation but only found abstract for article presentation. Urgent.Help!
Dear Rekha Sthapit, I think it would be the same – but if in doubt, you could ask the conference organisers to clarify what they mean by ‘topic presentation’. Good luck!