What Session Abstracts and Session IPAs have in Common
Whether for white papers, webinars, or especially speaking session submissions, the humble abstract plays a pivotal role in attracting attention, sparking legitimate interest, and showing a bit of style. The art of the abstract is a tricky one to master but it begins with an assessment of what an abstract is and what an abstract is not. An abstract is not simply a short summary of the session to follow. If all that is included is the opening paragraph of the presentation and a few bland bullet points, what you have is not an abstract – it’s an email. An abstract is your only opportunity to attract the eyes of the unaware, so if you squander it, all the work you put into your presentation is for naught. There are two audiences you must consider – the selection committee and the attendees themselves. To appeal to these targets you will want to create an abstract that is succinct, substantive, and stylish.
The point of an abstract is to deliver a taste of the coming attraction, not the whole meal. While requirements for length will vary by case, a safe starting point is between 100 and 150 words. This is just enough to communicate a few tantalizing tidbits without asking the audience for more than a minute of attention. With attention spans ever shorter and eventgoers ever conscious of how they allocate their time, an extended abstract, no matter how painstakingly detailed, will be dismissed. Regarding a 300-word abstract, as the saying goes, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” People hardly want to read a menu at a restaurant. You cannot expect them to read three paragraphs in the hallway of a conference.
If a generous reviewer does decide to read an overlong abstract, they may become convinced that your session will be unable to cover everything it your allotted time, either because you are trying to cram too much into the session or because you don’t actually know enough about the subject to have a realistic sense of how deep it goes. Weirdly, by being overly detailed, you run the risk of convincing people you don’t know what you’re talking about.
A solid abstract is not simply short for the sake of being short, however. Short and vague is just as bad as long and overly detailed. An abstract’s succinctness must be matched by its substance and specificity. The purpose of your abstract is to attract interest in the premise of your presentation, so that premise itself must also be attractive. Your abstract should present an idea, explain why that idea impacts the audience, establish an uncertainty about the past, present, or future status or application of that idea, and then tease your position for how to move forward. In the space of a few words, you need to sell readers on the notion that attending your session will change them in some key way. A session abstract should be much like a session IPA – intriguing and easy to digest, but with enough substance to stand on its own. There has to be some “there” there.
Think of an abstract for a session as you would a trailer for a movie. Both are designed to introduce a story, and neither should give away everything about where the story goes from there. The best session abstracts and trailers instead rely on style to intrigue audiences. Regardless of the topic, you want readers coming away from your abstract thinking, “Now I want to hear that person talk!” There are a variety of ways to inject style into your prose, but a basic tip is to be bold in what you say and how you say it. You should also avoid marketing-speak as much as you can, because if you write with the same overused language as everyone else, your style comes across as empty and derivative, not enticing and dynamic.
An abstract is essentially your one shot to get people to pay attention to something you are passionate about. It’s only a few sentences, so it should be easy – but then again, it’s all you’ve got. Keep it short, give it some heft, and inject it with some style.