How to write a conference abstract

ConferenceAbstractDr Helen Kara, Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, recently wrote a post on the LSE Blog “Maximising the impact of academic research”. Below are a some insights:

Dr Helen Kara responds to the ‘essential ‘how-to’ guide to writing good abstracts’ previously published in The Impact blog. She elaborates specifically on the differences for conference abstracts and offers tips for writing an enticing abstract for conference organisers and an engaging conference presentation.

She starts by pointing out some fundamental differences between article and conference abstracts:

  • Article abstracts are presented to journal editors along with the article concerned, whereas conference abstracts are presented alone to conference organisers. This means that journal editors or peer reviewers can say e.g. ‘great article but the abstract needs work’, while a poor abstract submitted to a conference organiser is very unlikely to be accepted.
  • Articles are typically 4,000-8,000 words long. Given that conference presentation slots usually allow 20 minutes and presenters should speak at around 125 words per minute, a conference presentation should be around 2,500 words long.
  • Articles are written to be read from the page, while conference presentations are presented in person. You need to engage your audience, and conference organisers will like to know how you intend to hold their interest. Written grammar is different from spoken grammar, therefore the old-skool approach of reading your written presentation from the page must be avoided.

The competition for getting a conference abstract accepted is rarely as fierce as the competition for getting an article accepted. Some conferences don’t even receive as many abstracts as they have presentation slots. But even then, they’re more likely to re-arrange their programme than to accept a poor quality abstract. And you can’t take it for granted that your abstract won’t face much competition.

Here are four useful tips on how to write a killer conference abstract:

  • First, your conference abstract is a sales tool: you are selling your ideas, first to the conference organisers, and then to the conference delegates. You need to make your abstract as fascinating and enticing as possible. And that means making it different. So think through some key questions:

What kinds of presentations is this conference most likely to attract? How can you make yours different?

What are the fashionable areas in your field right now? Are you working in one of these areas? If so, how can you make your presentation different from others doing the same? If not, how can you make your presentation appealing?

There may be clues in the call for papers, so study this carefully.

Remember that conference organisers are trying to create as interesting and stimulating an event as they can, and variety and a good balance of presentations are crucial.

  • Second, write your abstract well. Unless your abstract is for a highly academic and theoretical conference, wear your learning lightly. Engaging concepts in plain English, with a sprinkling of references for context, is much more appealing to conference organisers than complicated sentences with lots of long words, definitions of terms, and several dozen references. Conference organisers are not looking for evidence that you can do really clever writing (save that for your article abstracts), they are looking for evidence that you can give an entertaining presentation.
  • Third, conference abstracts written in the future tense are off-putting for conference organisers, because they don’t make it clear that the potential presenter knows what they’ll be talking about. If your presentation will include information about work you’ll be doing in between the call for papers and the conference itself, then make that clear.
  • Fourth, of course you need to tell conference organisers about your research: its context, method, and findings. It will also help enormously if you can take a sentence or three to explain what you intend to include in the presentation itself. This will give conference organisers some confidence that you can actually put together and deliver an engaging presentation.

So, to summarise, to maximise your chances of success when submitting conference abstracts:

  • Make your abstract fascinating, enticing, and different.
  • Write your abstract well, using plain English wherever possible.
  • Don’t write in the future tense if you can help it – and, if you must, specify clearly what you will do and when.
  • Explain your research, and also give an explanation of what you intend to include in the presentation.

While that won’t guarantee success, it will massively increase your chances. Best of luck!

Helen Kara is the author of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners (2012) and Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences (April 2015), both published by Policy Press.

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