How to Write a Presentation Abstract for a Tech Conference

on December 22, 2015

I Hate Writing Abstracts.

I love writing presentations. I like outlining them, I like writing the demos, putting the slides together. I even like reconsidering everything, backing up, scrapping it, and starting from a new approach!

But I hate writing abstracts. It’s just tough to capture your vision in the format a conference organizer wants. And often, if I’m writing the abstract before the presentation is done, I’m wary about possibly describing something that I’ll want to change later.

writers_block But abstracts need to be written. Otherwise you don’t have anything to submit.

I’ve Developed a Formula to Cope With It

Staring at a blank piece of paper (or a blank sheet in the Mou Markdown editor, in my case), is the toughest part. As I was writing my abstracts, I realized that I’ve developed a formula that gets me immediately past that blank paper and into the abstract.

The biggest part of the secret is that I don’t write the title or the first sentence of the abstract first. For whatever reason, that’s incredibly hard.

If You Hate Writing Abstracts (Or Just Don’t Know Where to Start), Here’s My Formula

  1. Target audience: Write a short note describing your target audience. I write for SQL Server conferences, so I think about their job role and how much experience they have. This step is really important because it orients your whole session, not just the abstract
  2. Outline: Write a brief outline of the topics that you’ll cover. Some conference organizers want to see this, but this is largely for yourself. What concepts will you teach the audience you described? Look at it critically and make sure you haven’t bitten off more than you can choose.
  3. What You’ll Learn: Next write a couple of sentences about what people will learn. This will end up being the heart of your abstract, and it’s what people really want to know about whether or not they should be in your session. Target your “What you will learn” sentences to the audience you described, and plug in the concepts from your outline. Example pattern: “In this session, you will learn how to ____, ___, and ___.”
  4. Opener: Next add an opening statement that calls to the target audience. An example: “Every developer needs to know how to ____.” Or “You’re a SQL Server DBA with 3 years of experience, but ___ still mystifies you.”
  5. Personalize (optional):  personalize the abstract with a reference to your name. I personally think that the abstract sounds just plain friendlier when it’s written this way: “In this session, Kendra will show you why…”  It lets the audience know they’ve got a person there, not a faceless robot! However, if you’re submitting to a conference that does blind review (such as the SQLPASS Summit), this may not win you any friends. Check with the conference organizers if you’re not sure.
  6. Title! Whee, you’re almost done! At this point it starts getting kinda fun. Brainstorm your title. I always write a few iterations, some more playful than others, and then pick my favorite.
  7. Review it Yourself: Check your abstract for length. Possibly add a “call to action” closing sentence like, “If you’re a developer with ___ years of experience, this session is for you.” But if your abstract has already called clearly to your audience, you may not need this.
  8. Get Feedback: Ask a few folks to review title and abstract for you, and tweak based on their feedback.

Step 8 is incredibly valuable, no matter where you are in the process. Try to get feedback from a variety of people, including some who have spoken at the conference(s) you’re planning to submit to. They can help guide you about style and advice specific to those events.

Most Important: Keep on Submitting

Your abstracts may not be accepted the first time you submit. That doesn’t mean they are bad abstracts. It just means you weren’t selected that time.

The most important thing is to not take it personally. Sure, tweak your abstract and session the next time you submit. But this is just because it’s always best to make sure the abstract fits what you’re doing at that point in time and is fresh and relevant to you.

Every conference is an opportunity to share and teach. Have fun rising to it!