Wednesday, July 10, 2013

#SpeakerU - Writing an Abstract, or "PLEASE PICK ME!"

It's time to get back to #SpeakerU, our ongoing discussion of how you can "get up on stage" and become a technical presenter/speaker at conferences like IamLUG (now ICONUS), ICONUK, and IBM Connect.  (If you want to play catchup, my previous #SpeakerU articles are here and here. Several other folks have written articles, as well; a quick search for "#SpeakerU" should bring their work to your attention.)

Most conferences do NOT expect you to have a full deck of slides (or a complete paper, or a finished poster) prepared in advance; instead, they'll ask you to submit an abstract - a brief explanation of your topic and material.  Now, whether you realize it or not, many conferences make the abstracts of accepted sessions public well before the conference meets, so that prospective attendees can begin planning their schedules.  Thus, your abstract has to do two things:
  • Convince the folks hosting the conference that you know your stuff, AND
  • Convince attendees to attend your session.
Your task is complicated by the fact that abstracts are usually limited in size; you might have as few as 500 characters with which to "make your pitch."  (Remember in the last article, when I said that a big part of picking a topic was fitting it to the time available?  Well, here's another reason to choose wisely; you have to be able to explain it succinctly!)  So, how are we going to accomplish so much in so few words?

I tend to use abstracts to do one thing - ask/answer attendees' questions.  If you've identified where folks are having problems AND can deliver solutions, that's going to be a big win with the conference organizers; if you hit upon a common problem (or a Frequently Asked Question), you may hear a buzz about your presentation well before the conference and (eventually) face a packed room.

Instead of creating spurious examples at this point, I'm going to point you to Russell Maher's recent article on the subject.  He gives the best possible example of the abstract process - his own abstracts. (As you'll see, I collaborated with him.)  The key point is take your topic and put it in terms of the attendees' environments, their questions and your answers; remember that they may not even realize that they need to visit your session until they read your abstract.   It isn't what you can teach - it's what they can learn if they attend.  Russell provides a before-and-after view of two session abstracts, which I think illustrates the process pretty well.

For all this talk about 'selling' and 'pitching' your session/presentation, it's important NOT to oversell.  Remember, you can't claim to make attendees experts in a one-hour session, nor can you ever answer "all the questions."  Be reasonable and straightforward about what you can deliver; as I've often said on stage, sometimes the best outcome of a presentation is NOT that everyone finds their questions answered, but rather that they learn the right questions to ask!

A good abstract requires effort; it isn't something you dash off in 90 seconds.  If you can find old conference programs, take a look at successful abstracts from past events.  Ask your friends to review your first effort, ask others to rewrite them, and don't be afraid to take it through several iterations.  The important thing is NOT to give up - keep trying!

Next up: You've Been Chosen - And Must Now Create Slides...
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