Your Abstract Sucks

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

Clark Sell
Feb 9, 2018 · 7 min read
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“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.

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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.

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“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:

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.

THAT Conference

THAT Conference is your Summer Camp For Geeks.

Thanks to kpd, Brandon Satrom, and Mat Bolwerk

Clark Sell

Written by

Practitioner, Software Developer, Fabricator. I’ve worked for big and small, but it’s all about creation and the community.

THAT Conference

THAT Conference is your Summer Camp For Geeks. The only family friendly polyglot community of geeks who've set out to change the world together.

Clark Sell

Written by

Practitioner, Software Developer, Fabricator. I’ve worked for big and small, but it’s all about creation and the community.

THAT Conference

THAT Conference is your Summer Camp For Geeks. The only family friendly polyglot community of geeks who've set out to change the world together.

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