Advice for Writing Abstracts

I recently have the privilege of being on the review panel for Chicago Roboto. This included reading all the abstracts (just abstracts without names attached), and rating them. This is the second time I’ve done this, and enjoyed the experience every time. Not only am I happy to help out a conference I support, but it’s also exciting to have a look into what is making the community excited, and what I can learn from them.

Through reading these proposals, I noticed some general trends. Some things I thought worked well, and others that could be improved upon. I’ll share my thoughts here that they might help you in preparing for your next talk proposal.

Note: These ideas are my own and do not reflect the decisions of the conference organizers. Sometimes they didn’t even affect my rating of a talk if I liked everything else. Take this with a grain of salt, and realize these are opinions.

Please Proofread

It makes me sad to see a really great abstract that’s missing this layer of polish. Make sure the right forms of words are used, and capitalization is consistent. Double check your punctuation and spacing. It makes me think of a blog post from Allison McMillan where she also gives suggestions for filling out a CFP.

You would be amazed at how many proposals are submitted with typos. Please, please, PLEASE, spell check. Read through your proposal, have a friend read it over, have anyone read it just to make sure there aren’t typos.

You can read the full post here.

While I’m sure it is rarely the case in reality, a proposal that is incomplete in this way implies: “The writer can’t take the time to write a polished proposal, so how can I trust they’ll put the effort into creating the talk?”

If you don’t have anyone close to look over it for you, head over to the internet. Ask people in a Slack community you’re in, or find that speaker you like on the Twitter. The worst you hear is “no” or no answer, and the best you have an improved abstract!

This does mean you have to finish writing your abstract in time to let someone review it. This is on you to think ahead. Put the reminder in your calendar for the due date a week in advance if need be. Anything that works for you to ask for feedback while being respectful of the reviewer’s time.

Respect Anonymous Voting

Some conferences have a round of anonymous voting on the abstracts. This encourages speakers from diverse backgrounds, new speakers, and cuts back on only hearing from the “big names” the day of the conference. This is the case for what I took part of, specifically this round of anonymous voting.

It becomes really difficult to give an unbiased score on the abstract when you include your name or company. Use the abstract to describe what the talk is about, and your bio to share about you and your company. The notes section is also a great place to sell yourself and share links. When the organizers are ready to look at the who, they have access to these things to look at. Your bio will also be available for the attendees skimming through abstracts to decide what talk to go to. Remember most audience members wont spend much time reading it to decide, so you want only the most important details.

Know Who’s Reading

When I’m looking at a list of talks to decide what I want to go to, I like to know what I’m going to get out of it if I go to that talk. This can be communicated with such subtle differences. Rather than saying what you will talk about, you say what the audience will learn.

Chiu-Ki Chan shared a great formula for writing a catching abstract in her talk “How to be an Android Expert.” You should watch the whole talk, but these tips I’m referencing are in this video starting at 26:47:

If you don’t have the time to watch the video right now, here’s a summary of some of her tips:

  • Start with the “what.” What is the topic the talk is about.
  • Then give a bit of detail, some description. Often lots of keywords might be here.
  • Share what the listener will learn, and what the takeaway will be.
  • “YOU” is a keyword to use. Again, what will the audience will get instead of what you will give. It’s subtle, but makes a difference.

I hope this is helpful for you when preparing your next abstract. Feel free to ask me any questions you might have! Again, these are all my own opinions. What do you like to see in an abstract?

Header photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash