How To Write A Killer Conference Abstract

The LSE blogs recently published an ‘essential ‘how-to’ guide to writing good abstracts’conference presentation. While this post makes some excellent points, its title and first sentence don’t differentiate between article and conference abstracts. The standfirst talks about article abstracts, but then the first sentence is, ‘Abstracts tend to be rather casually written, perhaps at the beginning of writing when authors don’t yet really know what they want to say, or perhaps as a rushed afterthought just before submission to a journal or a conference.’ This, coming so soon after the title, gives the impression that the post is about both article and conference abstracts.

I think there are some fundamental differences between the two. For example:

Article abstracts are presented to journal editors along with the article concerned. 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. Conference presentation slots usually allow 20 minutes so, given that – for good listening comprehension – 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. Written grammar is different from spoken grammar, and there is nothing so tedious for a conference audience than the old-skool approach of reading your written presentation from the page. Fewer people do this now – but still, too many. It’s unethical to bore people! You need to engage your audience, and conference organisers will like to know how you intend to hold their interest.

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. I’ve recently read over 90 abstracts submitted for the Creative Research Methods conference in May – for 24 presentation slots. As a result, I have four useful tips to share with you about 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 take a little time to 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. For example, we knew that the Creative Research Methods conference, like all general methods conferences, was likely to receive a majority of abstracts covering data collection methods. So we stated up front, in the call for papers, that we knew this was likely, and encouraged potential presenters to offer creative methods of planning research, reviewing literature, analysing data, writing research, and so on. Even so, around three-quarters of the abstracts we received focused on data collection. This meant that each of those abstracts was less likely to be accepted than an abstract focusing on a different aspect of the research process, because we wanted to offer delegates a good balance of presentations.

Currently fashionable areas in the field of research methods include research using social media and autoethnography/embodiment. We received quite a few abstracts addressing these, but again, in the interests of balance, were only likely to accept one (at most) in each area. Remember that conference organisers are trying to create as interesting and stimulating an event as they can, and variety is 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 wading through sheaves of abstracts 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. I was surprised by how many potential presenters did this. If your presentation will include information about work you’ll be doing in between the call for papers and the conference itself (which is entirely reasonable as this can be a period of six months or more), then make that clear. So, for example, don’t say, ‘This presentation will cover the problems I encounter when I analyse data with homeless young people, and how I solve those problems’, say, ‘I will be analysing data with homeless young people over the next three months, and in the following three months I will prepare a presentation about the problems we encountered while doing this and how we tackled those problems’.

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. So, perhaps something like, ‘I will briefly outline the process of participatory data analysis we developed, supported by slides. I will then show a two-minute video which will illustrate both the process in action and some of the problems encountered. After that, again using slides, I will outline each of the problems and how we tackled them in practice.’ This will give conference organisers some confidence that you can actually put together and deliver an engaging presentation. four leaf clover

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

  1. Make your abstract fascinating, enticing, and different.
  2. Write your abstract well, using plain English wherever possible.
  3. Don’t write in the future tense if you can help it – and, if you must, specify clearly what you will do and when.
  4. 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!

Peak Research Experience

Sometimes my career as an independent researcher delivers ‘ beyond my wildest dreams’ experiences. Last Tuesday was one of those times.

I spent much of last year working as independent research adviser to a national Commission on the Future of Third Sector Infrastructure, set up and resourced by NAVCA.  For those outside this field, the ‘third sector’ includes charities and social enterprises, community groups, co-operatives, community interest companies, and so on – everything that isn’t the ‘private sector’ (profit-making companies for personal gain) or the ‘public sector’ (tax-funded public services).  The ‘infrastructure’ of this sector is made up of the organisations and functions that support charities, community groups, and other organisations in setting up, managing, and when necessary winding down their businesses. This is particularly important for charities which, in the UK, must all – by law – be run by groups of unpaid volunteers. As there are over 160,000 officially registered charities in England and Wales, and over half of those have an annual income of £10,000 or less, most are not in a position to pay for the support they need. It is also essential for community groups, most of which have no funding at all.

If you’ve lost interest by now, you’re not unusual. Although third sector organisations fulfil a lot of our society’s needs, they, and particularly their infrastructure, are often all but invisible to the naked eye. Of course people will see charity shops, will know about the big hitters – Macmillan Cancer Support, Oxfam, Red Cross, etc, as well as their local ‘friends of the park’ or ‘lads and dads footie’ on a Saturday morning. But all the work that goes on behind the scenes, much of it by organisations such as Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres, and Rural Community Councils, is rarely talked about, thought about, or understood, even by people working in the sector.

This has interested me for a long time, so I was delighted to be asked to work with the Commission. And it was a privilege to be present at their discussions. They are a group of intelligent, knowledgeable, independent thinkers. And last Tuesday, the Commission’s report – based on the research I led, and which I was heavily involved in writing – was launched at a House of Commons reception hosted by Nick Hurd MP.

imagesThe reception was in the Terrace Pavilion, the strip of white you can see in the photo which is actually a marquee right by the river. As the visitors’ entrance is on the other side of the House of Commons by Parliament Square, we had to walk through lots of halls and corridors: first a huge mediaeval hall, then big Gothic passages with ornate tiled floors and doors ten feet high, then smaller corridors with green carpets and dark wood-panelled walls. When we arrived, we found that afternoon tea had been set out as a buffet: crustless finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and a selection of gorgeous cakes. The Pavilion soon filled up with people happily munching and chatting. When everyone was there and had had time to eat and drink, there were five short speeches: from Sara Llewellin, Chair of the Commission (who is also chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust); Nick Hurd, who was formerly the Minister for Civil Society; Rob Wilson MP who is currently the Minister for Civil Society; Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Minister for Civil Society; and Caroline Schwaller, Chair of NAVCA. It was so encouraging to hear all three MPs praise the work of the Commission and endorse the recommendations of the report. And it didn’t seem like just a pat on the head; they all spoke knowledgeably and intelligently about the issues raised. This was truly heartening, because it means there is a good chance the work we’ve done will make a real difference to charities and communities in the difficult years ahead.

And my research and writing was praised to the skies! By two of the speakers, and several Commission members who sought me out to congratulate me on my work. David Brindle, public services editor of the Guardian newspaper, made my day – perhaps my year, possibly even my decade – by telling me what a good job of writing he thought I’d done. That meant so much coming from him, a very experienced and highly talented journalist, and no mincer or waster of words.

I didn’t expect any of that when I took the job, or ever. I couldn’t stop grinning after the event. I went to sleep grinning, woke up at 3 am grinning, and had to replay the whole thing in my head before I could get back to sleep again. And that made me grin even more! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one I’ll never forget.

Viva Survivors

Last week I spoke to Dr Nathan Ryder, creator of the rather wonderful Viva Survivors blog. He interviews people with PhDs about their viva experiences and posts podcasts on the blog. Including mine! I wish his blog had been available in 2006, because I would have been hanging on its every word.516WAmwa+FL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_

Nathan has also written a well-reviewed book called Fail Your Viva: Twelve Steps To Failing Your PhD (And Fifty-Eight Tips For Passing). Again, if I was pre- rather than post-viva, I’d be all over this.

So if you have a viva looming, I recommend checking out Nathan’s work.

I’ve also heard good things on Twitter about Viva Cards, so check them out too.

Centre for Methodological Research

Last autumn I was delighted to receive a personal invitation to the launch of the new Cent2014-10-12_1413075996re for Methodological Research at Durham University. Research about research – now that really floats my boat!

The invitation said ‘The aim of the Centre is simply to foster the methodological imagination.’ That appealed to me, because I think imagination is both essential to research and undervalued by researchers. They had two international speakers: Professor Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, from Linköping University, talking about ‘sociological experiments in healthcare’ (cross-disciplinary = interesting, to me), and Professor Charles Ragin from the University of California, who I know from his work on Qualitative Comparative Analysis, talking about ‘noise and signal in social research’ which also sounded interesting. And the email ended, ‘We would very much like you to be involved in this given your expertise and interest in methodological research,’ which was flattering.

Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit nervous about going to Durham in mid-December, figuring it would probably be three feet deep in snow by then, but in fact it was a mild and pleasant day. I reached the venue on time, spotted a couple of people I knew, and was soon deep in conversation over the sandwiches.

There were about 40 people present, most of whom seemed to be from the north-east. After lunch we headed into a comfortable lecture room and settled down for the talks. Several people from Durham University gave brief introductions, saying the usual things about how delighted they were etc etc. Then we heard from the first speaker, who was indeed interesting, followed by time for discussion.

The discussion was interesting too. There was lots of talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities. But all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but eventually one of them shot out from under my bottom and up into the air. When I was called upon to speak, I made a polite but fairly impassioned plea for people to think beyond the academy walls; pointed out that someone already had, because I’d been invited; and tried to make the case for the contribution that independent researchers outside the academy can and do make to social science research. My comments seemed to be quite warmly received, and I felt cheered, and more optimistic.

After a tea break, we heard from the second speaker, who made some good and different points. Then there was more time for discussion. There was lots more talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities – and guess what? Once again, all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I didn’t even try to sit on my hands this time, and when I was called upon to speak, I said reproachfully, ‘You’re doing it again!’ This time I went further, and talked about practitioner researchers and community researchers as well as independent researchers, and stressed that ignoring the work of all these people would cause the Centre to miss a number of key dimensions of social research as it exists in the world today.

I also mentioned the need for academics to find resources for work with non-academic researchers.

I wonder whether my words fell on any hearing ears.