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Writing Abstracts: Non-Advice from a Speaker and Reviewer

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During my last two years as a professional software tester, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at conferences and events around the world, and have also reviewed hundreds of abstracts for a number of conferences.  I recently saw a thread from Richard Bradshaw with his opinions on writing and reviewing abstracts for conferences or call for papers (CFPs), and I thought it would be a good time to share my own thoughts too, having recently gone through another round of reviewing.  Some points here overlap with Richard’s thread, but hopefully it still gives you more details from my own thoughts, and some other things to consider when writing abstracts.

 

 

A Quick Disclaimer

 

These are just some of my personal thoughts, based on my own experiences as a speaker and reviewer.  When I’ve reviewed abstracts, I’ve done so only as a volunteer and, at the time of writing, am not formally involved in organising any conferences or events.  I know for a fact that some speakers and / or reviewers have different opinions to mine – they like some things that I don’t like, and vice versa.  This post is naturally filled with my own personal preferences and biases, which is why I’ve used the term “non-advice”.  Despite any wording used in this post, I’m not telling anyone what to do, or how to get their proposal accepted.  I’m just sharing my personal thoughts, even if it’s written as if it’s advice.

 

I encourage you to take everything in this post with a pinch of salt and apply your own context, preferences and judgement before deciding whether to take anything in this post into account when writing your own abstracts.

 

 

Your Talk is a Product

 

Think of your talk as a product.  You have an idea, technique, or experience that you want to sell to other people in your industry.  Conferences and events are the distributors that let you do that.  If a distributor is going to let you use their platform to sell your product to their network, you need to come up with a great idea with a unique selling point, and sell it to the distributor first, before you get a chance to sell it to consumers.

 

 

Generating Ideas

 

What exactly is your product?  My personal “process” for coming up with ideas for talks is more inspiration driven than a conscious effort.  In other words, I generally don’t sit down and specifically think about ideas for talks (except perhaps when I’m invited to speak without having submitted a proposal).  Instead, I’m thinking about all things testing, software production, and technology pretty much all the time.  My thoughts will often lead me to ideas for blogs and talks, and I decide which format is most appropriate and appealing to me for each idea.  If I decide to turn an idea into a talk, I develop the idea first, then decide which event(s) I want to submit it to.

 

If I ever am consciously trying to generate talk ideas, some of the things I think about include:

  • Recent experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned from them
  • What about me, my career path, journey, or experiences is different from other people and other talks out there
  • What have I noticed that no one else seems to be talking about?
  • Everyone is making a big deal about x; is it really what people are making it out to be?
  • What would I want to see a talk about, but haven’t?
  • What have people asked me for advice or opinions on?

 

In short, I apply some creativity and critical thinking that is similar to how I generate ideas for testing.  I look for things that are less obvious, go against the grain, or that I would want as a consumer.

 

I let my personal interest level and time constraints guide which idea(s) I work on first, and this can change frequently.  I never force myself to write or create something around a topic that I’ve lost interest in.  I usually submit to conferences first, then write and prepare the full talk only after it’s accepted.  This way, I don’t waste time writing a whole talk that might be rejected before I have valuable feedback on how to improve the idea.

 

 

Chicken or Fish; Blog or Talk?

 

Since I’ve mentioned it, how do I decide if an idea should be realised as a blog or a talk?  Without going into too much detail, some of the factors I consider include:

  • How detailed is the information I want to share
  • Is this a very specific or personal topic, or something that would be interesting for a wider audience
  • Do I want to provide insights, discuss a problem and share solutions, or do I just want to rant
  • How much time am I willing to spend on this
  • Can I speak about this in a humorous or impactful way
  • Is the publication or delivery time critical in some way / will the topic still be relevant by the time the conference day comes around
  • Am I adding my thoughts to a pile, or sharing something new
  • What is the message and how would I want to consume it?

 

Above all else, make sure that your idea is interesting for a talk.  Even if an abstract is well-written, I will still reject it if it’s boring, uninteresting, or just not something I would want to hear about for 30 to 60 minutes.  How you write about the topic in your abstract will influence how interesting it seems.  In most cases, people are paying to hear you speak, so the talk should be engaging and insightful, not dull.

 

 

Personalise Content to Your Target Audience

 

Once you have an idea for your product, you need to market it to distributors and attendees through your abstract.  For your product to be marketed well, it should have a target audience.  Apply some of the principles used in testing and software production to think about your ideal audience, and what persona(s) they might have:

  • Is this a talk for testers, developers, team leads, hiring managers, practitioners, agile professionals, technologists, etc.
  • Will the audience have had similar experiences that they can relate to
  • If you’re proposing a solution, whose problem are you solving
  • Are you trying to raise the profile of a subject that your target audience will likely not have had much exposure to
  • What are the motivators for people to attend your talk?

 

A common reason I have for rejecting proposals is that the abstract doesn’t have a clear target audience, or that the implied target audience does not match the that of the conference (e.g., a talk aimed at developers proposed to a testing conference).  Give proper consideration to your target audience, and tailor your talk and abstract with them in mind.  It’s not necessary to explicitly state your target audience in the abstract; if written well, it should be apparent.

 

 

The Talk Title

 

The talk title is important.  It’s the first thing that reviewers and potential attendees will read, so it should be snappy, reflective of the content, and preferably smart and memorable.  In my experience, coming up with talk titles is similar to coming up with blog titles.  Here are just a few formats that can work well:

  • “How to…” – this makes it very clear that you will be sharing ideas on how to do something
  • “X [Ways / Tips / Reasons] to…” – a suggested number of ideas for achieving a particular goal makes the subject clear and lends the talk to a structure that goes through each of those ideas in turn
  • “Why X [Will / is] Not Y” – this can be an effective way to pique readers’ interest, particularly if it goes against the popular narrative
  • “[Subject]: [Tagline / Context]” – regular readers might notice I’m a fan of this one, and this very post is an example of this format.  I like it because it allows you to give a bit more information and plays well with keyword principles, truncation, and order bias.  Although these titles can be a little longer, the subject is the first thing readers see and is rarely cut off in search results and link previews, whereas the opposite is true for the first two formats listed here

 

One thing these title formats all have in common is that the subject of the talk is the main focus.  Please don’t make me guess what your talk will be about, or question why the title and description seem completely unrelated.  As mentioned, if you can use some play on words to link your title to something smart, funny or current, this will make it more memorable.

 

 

Structuring Your Abstract

 

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a well-structured abstract.  Aside from content, poor structure is probably the number one reason why I reject abstracts, as a reviewer.  There is no one formula for structuring an abstract, but it should always flow well.  Whether there are a few sentences or a few paragraphs, make sure that one follows nicely from the previous one.

 

A structure that works well for me and that I like to see as a reviewer looks like this:

  • Paragraph one: Background, context, setting the scene.  I like to introduce the topic with something that people will be familiar with and recognise, or a couple of sentences about a personal experience that inspired the talk.  Going in hard with the core content of the talk is too abrupt for me; introduce me to something that I should be interested in first
  • Paragraph two: With the context shared in the opening paragraph, you can then go into some details about what the talk will cover.  If you use the “X Ways to…” format or say you will give examples or tips, share some of those here so that people know what to expect.  If I have no idea what you’ll be saying for 30 to 60 minutes, I won’t recommend that the event organisers invite you to the stage – it’s too unpredictable.  How will I know that your ideas are good, new or current?  Show me that you’ve thought this through and have a good idea of what you’ll say and / or do during the talk.  Tell me what your unique selling point is and why you are the speaker I want to see
  • Paragraph three: I like to see things tied together in a final paragraph:
    • What’s the connection
    • Why should I care
    • Why should I want to know more?

Here, you can also add a little teaser by referring to one of the points you mentioned in the previous paragraph and inviting attendees to join you to find out more about what they’re interested in.  Again, your abstract is your talk’s marketing material, so tell me enough to get me interested, but don’t just list all the features

  • Takeaways: Most CFPs have some sort of “takeaways” section where they ask you to list a couple of bullet points.  Please don’t just copy and paste parts of your description here; duplication adds no value and doesn’t make me want to see your talk.  As I write and read more abstracts, I prefer to change this section to something more like, “What you will learn,” or “Why come to this talk?”  Aside from the fact that I don’t like the term “takeaways”, I think the alternatives are more appealing and inviting to readers

 

The abstract is what will be published on the conference schedule, if accepted.  Do not submit three pages of your talk ideas / notes or a full plan for your talk.  If you feel you must include more details about your talk in your submission, use headings to make it absolutely clear where the abstract ends and the further information for reviewers only begins.  I read submissions all the way through to try and give people a fair chance and provide specific feedback, but I usually already know how I will score it from the first few lines, so a great opening is really important.

 

The message or purpose of your talk should be made clear throughout the abstract and any “takeaways” section.  If something isn’t adding to the purpose or message, it probably isn’t needed.

 

Remember: your abstract is your product’s marketing material.  Make it interesting, easily consumable, and appealing.  People want to know what they’re buying and feel happy about doing it.

 

 

Proofread, God Damn It!

 

The conferences I’ve reviewed abstracts for receive hundreds of submissions.  As a reviewer, I get about 50 to 100 of those to read and review per event, and the number of submissions I see with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors is shocking.  We are testers; test your own work by at least proofreading it a few times before submitting.  Yes, proofread it multiple times.

 

Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors make abstracts extremely hard to read, and create unnecessary barriers to figuring out what the talk is about.  If writing isn’t your biggest strength, or you’re submitting a talk in a language that is not your native tongue, ask other people who are native or fluent in the language to proofread and review your abstract before you submit it.  As well as checking for mistakes and typos, you can get early feedback as to what others think of your talk idea and adjust as necessary before submitting to a conference.

 

After someone has helped you to review your abstract, proofread it again.

 

 

When All Else Fails

 

It’s easy to end up spending a lot of time on your abstract.  Even then, it could end up being terrible and something that even you don’t like.  Despite my best efforts, this happened to me recently.  The more I tried to edit and fix my abstract, the worse it got.  I reached out to someone for help figuring out why it was so bad, and learned that even the angle and message of the talk wasn’t being portrayed correctly.  It was very frustrating.

 

I acted spontaneously and deleted the whole thing.  Wiping the slate clean meant that I could concentrate on rewriting it from scratch, without being distracted by the mess I had already made.  It was a lot quicker to write, and we agreed that the new version was much better than the first.

 

So, when all else fails, scrap the whole thing and start again.

 

 

 

Bonus Non-Advice

 

General Hints for Those New to CFPs

 

In my experience, most CFP forms / formats are pretty poor and don’t provide enough information about what to expect for new speakers, who aren’t used to the process.  To try and ease some of the confusion for those who might be experiencing what I have, here’s some things I’ve picked up:

  • Assume that what you submit is what will be published, word for word, if accepted.  Most event organisers will not go to the effort of discussing your submission in more detail, or giving you the chance to make any changes.  If you don’t want something to be openly available to the public, don’t include it
  • Write abstracts in the first person, not the third person.  This reads better as an attendee, and is also better for anonymous reviews.  Speaker biographies can be either or
  • If you want to submit to a specific conference, have a quick look at their submission form first, to get an idea of specific requirements, then write your abstract free-form so you’re not overly influenced by any bad layout or field separation choices.  It’s easier to write your abstract first, then alter it to fit the form, than it is to write your abstract in a way that makes it fit the form.  This also makes it easier to submit to multiple CFPs
  • Some CFPs ask you to specify the number of people you can deliver your talk to, either with a minimum, maximum or range of people.  I have no idea why they do this!  The organisers are in charge of selling tickets, not us.  Unless you’re submitting a workshop, don’t worry about trying to come up with a realistic number – I just put 1000 to try and cover all attendees
  • Write your abstract in a document writing tool like Word or Google Docs, not in the CFP form.  If the browser crashes or the page unexpectedly refreshes, you’ll lose everything.  Also, it’s good to have all your abstracts saved somewhere, and not all CFP submissions will trigger a confirmation email with your inputs included, so you might not ever see it again unless you save it yourself
  • Think about where you stand on conferences that make you pay to speak, and read about Why I Don’t Pay to Speak.  It’s okay to submit your abstract first for the experience and feedback, then decide later if you’re willing to pay to speak if you get accepted

 

 

My Content and Timing Preferences

 

  • Aim for your abstract to be around 250 to 300 words; I’ve found that this is good for both reviewers and attendees.  I’ve noticed that accepted abstracts for older or more traditional conferences tend to be much longer, but also less interesting and current
  • I like some element of personal experience in a talk, even if it’s not an experience report in itself.  If someone is just talking about things hypothetically or from what they’ve seen or heard from others, or even if they’re just trying to sell their own consultancy services, this is of no value to me, as I have no reason to trust them or believe that they’re the best person to speak about this subject
  • Failure is a great opportunity for reflection and learning, so it’s nice to see a story of personal or team failure sometimes.  This shows me that you have some humility and that perhaps you can teach me something new and valuable from a real experience
  • If you’re speaking on a subject that has been discussed by someone else recently, or is always a popular topic, let me know why your talk is different.  Of all the talks I could watch about this subject, why should I bother to watch yours?  I don’t want to hear old or recycled ideas, and I certainly don’t want to pay to hear them
  • I prefer talks that have some sort of practical element – some lessons or ideas that I can use in my own work or day-to-day life.  Stories on their own that teach me nothing, or don’t instantly make me think of someone I want to share the talk with later might be nice to listen to at the time, but I probably won’t ever think about it again.  Your talk doesn’t have to give me all the answers, but at least make it thought-provoking
  • I, personally, really don’t like live demos in talks; I believe that live and interactive exercises are better suited for workshops, as I find it very dull and boring to watch someone do things on a screen where the text is too small for me to even read, and I’m not able to contribute in any meaningful way.  I’m just waiting for it to be over
  • Watch out for cultural differences; there are some more regional or country-specific terms or phrases that haven’t travelled well, or mean different things in other places.  If your whole talk is centred around one of these, you could leave reviewers and attendees confused.  Get feedback from people in or from the area where the event is going to be held if you’re unsure
  • As an attendee, 30 minute talks work best for me because I have a hard time concentrating continuously for much longer if I’m not actively contributing.  If you want more time for your talk, have a really good reason and share it somewhere in your submission (but not in the abstract!)

 

 

Conference Specific

 

  • Read the accepted abstracts for previous years’ events to get an idea of the structure and topics that a conference usually accepts, but don’t feel the need to conform if you have other ideas that you think are better.  Something different from the rest could be just what they need
  • If the conference you’re submitting to has a theme or a list of topics they’re particularly interested in, don’t try too hard to fit in with these.  Concentrate more on creating a talk you’re passionate about, and remember that you can submit it to other events too, if it ends up being too different.  Also, some organisers have told me that the themes and suggested topics don’t really matter, so submit anyway
  • Check whether you’re submitting to a single or multi-track conference; talks for the former should be suitable for a wider audience, whereas talks for the latter can be a little more specific
  • That being said, talks that are very tool-specific don’t tend to be well received at either, because they seem like sales pitches and are only relevant to a small portion of the audience, if at all
  • When deciding where to submit a talk to, some of the things I consider include:
    • Who is the conference aimed at / what kind of people will the audience likely be made up of
    • What location is the event in, and how might this impact how my message is interpreted
    • Does the subject of my talk fit in with the kind of talks they’ve accepted in the past
    • If I’ve been to one of the previous events, what was the atmosphere like, and how was I treated as an attendee
    • If I’ve spoken there before, how was I treated as a speaker
    • Would the idea work well at a single or multi-track conference
    • Does the conference make speakers pay to speak
    • Is there evidence that the organisers care about diversity and inclusion
    • Does the conference tend to accept talks that I would find interesting, or are they more what I would consider old-fashioned or behind the curve?

 

 

Help and Feedback

 

  • There are often experienced speakers posting on Twitter, offering their help to people writing talks and abstracts.  Look out for them if you need help, or apply for mentoring with Speak Easy if you’re brand new to speaking
  • Some conferences and events have sections for short lightning talks or 99 second talks from the audience – this is your chance to debut your ideas and get some feedback before writing an abstract if you’re unsure of how an idea will be received.  It’s also a great way to get your speaking career started
  • If your proposal is rejected, don’t let that deter you.  Statistically speaking, we are all more likely to have our talk submissions rejected than not, so this isn’t necessarily something to worry about.  Always ask for feedback on your submission once you know the outcome, so you can understand how it was received by reviewers, and how to improve it
  • Reviewing other people’s abstracts is a great way to better understand what you and other reviewers like and don’t like to see, and which of those traits you can spot in your own abstracts.  If you get the opportunity to help review abstracts for a conference, I highly recommend it

 

 

 

Those are all the hastily gathered thoughts I have to share for now.  I hope they’re helpful.  As I said at the beginning, these are just my own opinions, so even if your abstract doesn’t “follow” the points I’ve mentioned here, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or won’t be accepted somewhere.

 

Writing an abstract takes a lot of time and practice but, if it’s accepted, speaking and sharing your ideas on stage is a great experience.  You’ll never know until you try, so go ahead and get started.  Good luck!

 

 

I also have lots of opinions on presentation slides and talk delivery in itself.  If you’d like to see a similar post with my thoughts on that, let me know in the comments.

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