Your Abstract Sucks

Don’t worry. Mine does, too, but maybe I can help.

“A man standing in front of a microphone in a stand” by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

It’s 5am on February 1st 2018, and in just a few short hours THAT Conference’s call for speakers opens. I should be excited, but here’s the thing: selecting speakers is just horrible. I absolutely hate it! It’s the most stressful activity for me as we plan for THAT Conference.

For the past decade I’ve been involved in some capacity with a number of conferences (attending, speaking, organizing, owning, whatever else). Carrie and I have dedicated more of our personal time and money than we care to admit to these endeavors, but I just hate saying no to a potential speaker - new, seasoned, or otherwise. I hate saying no to anyone who strives to better our community. Saying “no” feels at odds with our main goal of expanding community and encouraging all voices.

Every year, hundreds of people will submit to speak at THAT Conference, but realistically we can’t accept every abstract. This means I’ll get to send emails to prospective THAT Conference Counselors saying their session or sessions were not accepted. I hate it.


Regardless of THAT Conference, how can your abstract stand tall amongst the hundreds in the stack? Before diving into a crafting an awesome abstract, let’s start with observing a few reasons why our abstracts might not get accepted at any event.

  • You didn’t put enough effort in. A one sentence abstract isn’t sufficient. When we review abstracts to put together a program, the first pass filtration is done anonymously, without speaker names. One sentence abstracts are summarily discarded. Yes, we’ll miss some “internet famous” folks, but we’re happier to select someone with more dedication to the community.
  • You and 50 other people submitted the same hot topic this year. I guarantee this year (even with this article) we will see 25–50 abstracts on why Vue.js is the new hot sauce you should adopt before your coffee runs out. Fact, unless it’s an event strictly about Vue, very few will get chosen. Vue is awesome, but a polyglot conference has got to polyglot.
  • Your profile. Does the website you put into your profile fail to render or leave the user hanging on a 404? Do you have a profile picture? Ask yourself, “If I’m sitting in the audience listening to your awesome Vue.js talk, is there a way I can reach out and talk with you?” If I’m at a conference thumbing through the sessions, and your community presence is non-existent, I’m skipping that session. It may seem harsh, but the reality is that if your audience can’t find your public presence, your one paragraph might not be enough to convince someone to take a chance on your session.
  • You’ve spoken in the past. We are so grateful for all our past speakers, but because we build the program anonymously, being a previous speaker doesn’t help your abstract get selected. Experienced speakers get good at writing abstracts, and that’s what gets abstracts selected.
  • It just didn’t fit into the overall story or theme. Think about the audience. We’re a community-focused polyglot conference. If you’re proposing one framework that is the be-all, end-all, that might be against the grain and spirit of the conference. That could be a good or provocative thing, but it also might get deselected.
  • Your abstract might not be as strong as one that was chosen. Good abstracts don’t come out of thin-air. They take time and knowledge to actually make them sound interesting. If you need help, reach out to the respective organizers asking for help. If they have a forum, slack channel, something, hit that up too and ask the community. In the case of THAT Conference we’re always happy to help, email me hello@thatconference.com and we can even setup time to chat on the phone.

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Over the past few weeks I’ve been asked to review a number of people’s abstracts who are considering submitting to THAT Conference this year. In doing so I found myself asking people the same question:

Why should the audience care?

Followed by…

Why should they care about you?

After a few rounds of this I started to realize that people weren’t making the bigger connection to their own experiences. Further, they hadn’t considered the audience’s perspective and needs. Essentially the pitch was; “pretty cool tech, helps you do pretty cool things, you should come see me talk about cool stuff.” They were relying on the technology to sell them rather than taking a step back and asking how they could take their experiences and really help the audience meet their goals.


Let’s make it concrete and explore THAT Conference for a minute. THAT Conference is a community conference, and while the term “community” can get a bit overloaded, people are at the center of our mission.

To be crystal clear: THAT Conference isn’t the place you go if you’re looking for 40 hours of educational content. You’ll find that at one of the great training sites like Pluralsight, Udemy, yourFavoriteSiteHere, etc. You are certain to pick up some new tech chops to some degree, but what people are really doing is sharing their experiences.

To that end, THAT Conference is really about being both a physical place and a virtual forum, bigger than the actual conference, that people turn to when they want to engage with real people, share real experiences, real failures and build a bigger network.

For me, it’s an important distinction. We don’t compete with the likes of Pluralsight. Instead, what we can offer is that high velocity conversation between geeks who can be present and engage with one another. Even in this day of webcams, Slack teams, and always-on messaging, you can’t replace the high fidelity of human interaction.

It’s about interaction in the real world, and to that end, you have a role in that. Maybe it’s as an attendee asking a burning question that someone else is afraid to ask, maybe it’s contributing or hosting an Open Spaces session, or maybe you get chosen as a speaker. All are equally important, and all contribute to a better, more inclusive network.

Your abstract is as much about you and your experiences as it is about the technology itself.

“A woman in a yellow jacket standing amongst a group of people in black jacket” by Paul Dufour on Unsplash

So how do we make our abstract stand out? A mentor of mine a long time ago once said, “I’m wise because I ask lots of questions” — Walter B. In that spirit, here are a few questions I’d like you to ask yourself:

  • How many times have I written my abstract or talk? Let’s be honest with one another, typically our first draft isn’t very good. Write your abstract 3, 4, or 5 times. Take some time in between edits to see how if feels when you read it fresh.
  • Have I shared my abstract with anyone? Share it with everyone. Ask for feedback. Have someone read it and then ask them, “What do you think you’re going to see in my talk? What value would you hope to get out of it?” In our public slack, we dedicate an entire channel to talking about sessions. Why not leverage that? Leverage THAT.
  • Have I reached out to the organizers? That might seem silly, but don’t play defense; play offense. Reach out and talk to the organizers: see what works, what doesn’t work. Find out if there is a way for you to marry your passion with their mission.
  • What experiences am I bringing? Yes, others want to see the new hot technology. Of course they do. But you’re bringing your experience to the table. That’s the differentiator between your session and a Pluralsight talk. Pluralsight tells them how. You get to tell the how and the why. Or even why not.
  • How will I STAND OUT? Use an emoji or don’t, but I will. No, seriously. When there are 15 other sessions during the time slot how are you going to stand out? Think of ways to make your abstract appear different from the rest.
  • Can I/they get this information online? Like it or not, you’re competing with the likes of Google, YouTube, Pluralsight, etc. If your session only covers the “Hello World” of React, it’s been covered many times all over the internet.
  • Does it fit with the audience? Submitting a talk on moving your business off of some crusty AS/400 to Node.js might seem like a legit talk, but only if you have mainframe developers around. Maybe there is a different spin you could take.
  • Is it unique? If you’re gonna talk about the current awesome it better be more awesome than the other one of us geeks who is also crafting the current awesome. If so, awesome.
  • What does the conversation after the talk feel like? THAT Conference is all about the network and the people, so what conversations do you visualize having afterwards? Will you end up in our Open Spaces area to show more code? Will you exchange contact info with a few new people? Visualize what you’d like to see happen.
  • Are you submitting multiple sessions? I’m not saying submit 15 sessions, but do submit a couple. It creates options for you and the organizers. Maybe there were 15 sessions on an Intro to Vue.js, but maybe your advanced Vue.js session was the only one.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do: you have something to share with everyone. Helpful resources are available, and everyone really does want you to succeed.

If your talk doesn’t get accepted, that doesn’t signal process.kill, in fact it should be quite the opposite. Reach out to the organizer and ask for feedback. Submit the abstract to other events, speak at a local user group, or even give the talk at your own company’s lunch and learn. There are countless opportunities; seize them, and be creative along the way.

I’d love to know how you attack your abstract. Leave a comment below and share your strategies. What’s worked, what hasn't, and better yet, why.

If I can ever be of help, you know where to find me.

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