Consider the following hypothetical conference session abstract:

Much like major oral surgery, writing talk abstracts is universally acknowledged as difficult and painful. This has never been more true than it is now, in our age of ubiquitous containerization technology. Today’s aggressively overprovisioned, multi-track conferences provide high-throughput information transfer in minimal venue space, but do so at a cost: namely, they impose stingy abstract word limits. The increasing prevalence of novel “lightning talk” tracks presents new challenges for aspiring presenters. Indeed, the time it takes to read a lightning talk abstract may be a substantial fraction of the time it takes to deliver the talk! The confluence of these factors, inter alia, presents an increasingly hostile environment for conference talk submissions in late 2015. Your talk proposals must adapt to this changing landscape or face rejection. Is there a solution?

Hopefully, you recognize some key elements of subpar abstracts that you’ve seen, reviewed, or — maybe, alas — even submitted in this example.

To identify what’s fundamentally wrong with it, we should first consider what the primary rhetorical aims for an abstract are. In particular, an abstract needs to

  1. provide context so that a general audience can understand that the problem the talk addresses is interesting,
  2. summarize the content of a talk so that audiences and reviewers know what to expect, and
  3. motivate conference attendees to put the talk on their schedule (and, more immediately, motivate the program committee to accept the talk).

The abstract above does none of these things, for both stylistic and structural reasons.

The example abstract’s prose is generally clunky, but the main stylistic problem is its overuse of jargon and enthymemes. If you don’t already spend time in the same neighborhoods of the practice as the author, you probably don’t understand all of these terms to mean the same things that the author does or agree with his or her sense of what is “universally acknowledged.” It is easy to fall in to using jargon when you’re deep in a particular problem domain: after all, most of the people you interact with use these words and you all seem to understand each other. However, jargon terms are essentially content-free: they convey nothing new to specialists and are completely opaque to novices. By propping up your writing on these empty terms instead of explaining yourself, you are excluding the cohort of your audience who doesn’t already understand your problem and shamelessly pandering to the cohort that does.1

The main structural problem with the example abstract is that it doesn’t actually make an argument for why the talk is interesting or worth attending; instead, it focuses on emphasizing the problems faced by abstract writers and ends with a cliffhanger. (The cliffhanger strategy not only adds no additional content, it is also especially risky.) A surprising number of abstracts, even accepted ones, suffer because they focus on only one or two of an abstract’s responsibilities, but it is possible to set your abstract up for success by starting from a structure that is designed to cover all of the abstract’s responsibilities.

In 1993, Kent Beck appeared on a panel on how to get a paper accepted at OOPSLA. OOPSLA (now called SPLASH) was an academic conference on research and development related to object-oriented programming languages, systems and environments to support object-oriented programming, and applications developed using these technologies. This is a particularly broad mandate, and because OOPSLA attracted so many papers on a wide range of topics, it had an extremely low acceptance rate. (This is probably why they held a panel on getting papers accepted, but it also makes OOPSLA a good analogy for contemporary practice-focused technical conferences that often cross several areas of specialization, e.g., data processing, distributed computing, and machine learning.)

Beck’s advice is worth reading even if you aren’t writing an academic conference paper. In particular, he suggests that you start by identifying a single “startling sentence” that summarizes your work and can grab the attention of the program committee. From there, Beck advises that you adopt the following four-sentence model to structure your abstract:

  1. The first sentence is the problem you’re trying to solve,
  2. The second sentence provides context for the problem or explains its impact,
  3. The third sentence is the “startling sentence” that is the key insight or contribution of your work, and
  4. The fourth sentence shows how the key contribution of your work affects the problem.

I’ve used this template in almost every abstract I’ve written for many years, although I sometimes devote more than a single sentence to each step. It has successfully helped me refine abstracts for both industry conference talks and academic papers, and it more or less ensures that each abstract accomplishes what it needs to. (If you’re writing a talk abstract, as opposed to a paper abstract, it’s sometimes also a good idea to add a sentence or two covering what the audience should expect to take away from your talk and why you’re qualified to give it.) If I am sure to consider my audience — first, an overworked program committee member, and second, a jetlagged and overstimulated conference attendee — I am far more likely to explain things clearly and eschew jargon. As a bonus, starting from a fairly rigid structure frees me from wasting time worrying about how best to arrange my prose.

If we avoid jargon and start from Beck’s structure, we can transform the mediocre example abstract from the beginning of this post into something far more effective:

Contemporary multiple-track industry conferences attract speakers and attendees who specialize in distinct but related parts of the practice. Since many authors adopt ineffective patterns from other technical abstracts they’ve read, they may unwittingly submit talk proposals that are at best rhetorically impotent and at worst nonsensical to people who don’t share their specialization. By starting from a simple template, prospective speakers can dramatically improve their chances of being understood, accepted, and attended, while also streamlining the abstract-writing process. Excellent abstracts benefit the entire community, because more people will be motivated to learn about interesting work that is outside of their immediate area of expertise. In this talk, delivered by someone who has delivered many talks without any serious train wrecks and has also helped other people get talks accepted, you’ll learn a straightforward technique for designing abstracts that communicate effectively to a general audience, sell your talk to the program committee, and motivate your peers to attend your talk.

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