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Claire Aitchison

For many researchers, presenting at a conference is the vehicle for the first ‘public’ display of their work. Whether you are supporting others with their conference abstract, or a student making your first draft – this post outlines key features for a successful abstract. Most of us are familiar with the abstracts of scholarly papers, however, while similar to the abstract that accompanies a journal paper, conference abstracts have some unique features.

Firstly, the conference abstract is an independent text that must stand on its own. It isn’t necessarily the outcome, nor companion to a paper (or grant) submission seeking publication; there is no more to read than the abstract and its title. Secondly, on its own merits, it is seeking permission to join other presenters at a conference. There may never be a paper. Thus, it must catch the attention, and approval, of the reviewers – as Swales (2003) says, the conference abstract is a “complex promotional genre”. Thirdly, having been accepted into the conference proceedings, the abstract needs to attract an audience. Diligent delegates will compile their conference agenda choosing sessions from the available information: that is, the title, the authors, and the abstract itself.

Conference reviewers will look for all the usual characteristics of quality (sound methods, appropriate scholarliness, clear argument, well-written and so on) and relevance (matching the conference themes) but also, and perhaps most importantly, reviewers will be keen to have conference presentations that really engage with issues that matter to conference-goers.  Conferences are their own little community and those abstracts that appeal directly to the interests and concerns of this community are highly ranked.

I’ve been assessing conference abstracts lately and have been reflecting on the genre and what makes for a successful submission. Here’s what I think.

A successful conference abstract will:

Address the conference theme

Be interesting, even enticing

Engage in the current conversations of the field

Be scholarly and well written

Make implicit or explicit reference to key literature in the field

Match the discourse of the community of scholars in voice and tone

Subscribe to conference stipulations

Make clear what is to be presented on the day

This final point is worth emphasising – I find it frustrating to get to the end of the submission and have no idea what will actually be presented on the day. A conference presentation is a performance – what will you be giving the audience on the day?

Before beginning to write a conference abstract

Make sure you have something of interest to say – to this group of people. It won’t be good enough to simply provide an update on your research. The audience needs to care about the topic: so, to ‘sell’ it to them, you need to know what they care about. Therefore, do some homework on the conference itself.

Check out abstracts from previous conferences to ensure this is the right forum for your work and to discover what’s topical in the community. Also take note of norms regarding stylistic matters such as the use of quotation marks and referencing. Find out the names of the conference committee members and invited speakers and their topics, since this will provide an idea of what’s valued in this community.

Make sure your abstract adheres to the stipulations. Carefully check all conference instructions: conference themes, deadlines, length of abstract, formatting and submission details. Note, too, possibilities for refereed Conference Proceedings and/or follow-on publications and awards or commendations such as Best Paper at Conference.  When you are discussing conferences with doctoral students, knowledge of these extra can also influence decisions about when and where to invest energies to maximise impact. 

Structure of the conference abstract

Some conferences stipulate a traditional research-orientated structure for abstracts (IMRAD). Otherwise, it is likely that abstracts will follow rhetorical moves such as those proposed by Yakhontova in the field of applied linguistics (1998, cited in Swales and Feak, 2003). 

  1. outlining of the research field
  2. justification of a particular piece of research/study
  3. introducing the paper to be presented at the conference
  4. summarising the paper
  5. highlighting the outcome/results

It is relatively common in the humanities to see minor variations of this pattern, often along these lines: 

  1.  Outline the territory (may be prefaced by a ‘hook’
  2.  Identify the problem/issue
  3.  Declare a position or argument
  4.  Summarise how your work addresses this problem/issue (e.g., through research/practice/theory)
  5.  Present your findings/conclusions.

Titles

Choose the title with care – first impressions count!

The title has to ‘sell’ the product both to the conference gatekeepers and the conference delegates themselves. As we all know, conference delegates so often simply rush to the next session based on the title alone.

Ensure the title gives an accurate impression of the content, but try to be beguiling. A catchy title can be a great draw card; on the other hand, obscure or ‘trick’ titles can backfire.

Be careful what you promise

Abstracts are usually formulated months ahead of the conference itself. If you promise to report on research that you are currently undertaking in the belief that certain things will be known by the time of the conference, be careful not to set yourself up to report on something that you cannot deliver.

Addressing the conference theme

I have mixed feelings about conference themes – both as a writer and a reviewer. If themes are too restrictive, some really pertinent presentations can be excluded. Some themes seem out of date, too broad, overused or irrelevant – and writing an abstract to fit a theme can be artificial, even counter-productive if you end up having to reshape the work too severely. And yet, most conferences will require submissions to address the theme or at least to nominate which theme the presentation fits within. Depending on the abstract ranking criteria (and adherence to it), there may be no choice but to adapt the work to fit.  On the other hand, there are many benefits to having your work presented in the right stream amongst like-minded colleagues. So, as tedious as it may seem, do consider carefully which theme (or stream) your work belongs to.

It helps to know what you’re doing when writing a conference abstract

Writing a successful conference abstract is an important researcher skill, but all too often we find ourselves scribbling off an abstract in a hurry against a deadline and without due preparation. Understanding the genre and key factors as proposed above is a good starting point. Supervisors can play an important role in helping doctoral candidates to target appropriate conferences; they can point out conference norms and practices; and they can discuss ideas and review drafts. If they are able to attend the conference, they can provide valuable feedback on the day. But it all starts with writing that challengingly short abstract. 

Beyond the conference abstract? – getting the most out of being at the conference

With your abstract accepted, to make sure you get the most out of the experience, we recommend the wonderful blog on all things conferency – Conference Inference.

References

Berkenkotter, C. & Huckin, T. N. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum cited in Swales (2003)

Swales, J. M. & Feak, C. B. (2003). English in today’s research world; A writing guide. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.