Monday, October 05, 2009

Writing a Good Session Abstract

If you’ve got a great idea for a conference session, you absolutely have to spend time getting your abstract right before you submit it. Your abstracts really need to pitch to two separate audiences: the selection committee and the attendees themselves. Work hard to explain the value folks will get from your session.

Here are some thoughts based on my experience writing a few abstracts.

  • Align your content with the event. Is your session even a good fit for the event you’re submitting it to? I’ve only submitted to one national conference, and I had to really twist around my submissions to make them seemingly fit with the conference. They didn’t. I didn’t get selected. One of the organizers (a good pal) specifically called out the lack of fit as the reason other organizers weren’t interested.
  • Avoid overly broad sessions. “Introduction to .NET 3.5” or “Testing is Great!” might be interesting, but generally speaking they’re way too broad to get much value out of in a 60 or 75 minute session. Focus down on some specific items. Instead of a broad testing talk, narrow it to some tools, like Selenium, or mock or unit test frameworks. Speak to something specific in those.
  • Titles matter. Really. Cool titles like “I am MOSS Tester! And You Can Too!” sound nifty, but they’re often going to lose the selection committees and attendees. Sure, make your title catchy, but make sure it showcases what your session’s about.
  • Explain what attendees will get out of the session. Make it clear what your attendees will learn during your session. “You’ll leave this session with a handle on ways to smooth out your project’s environment” or “This session will show you a great system for boosting customer collaboration and increasing your code’s quality” are good examples.
  • Give examples of what’s discussed. Let attendees know what you’ll be talking about. “This highly interactive session will show you three specific tips: improve your estimation, use a daily standup to keep a close focus on your progress, and work in retrospectives.“ This helps the selection committee understand if the content fits in, and it helps potential attendees see they should be skipping that bogus session on Drag and Drop Driven Development to attend your presentation.
  • Show some prior feedback on the session. Have you given this talk before? If so, try and collect some feedback on the presentation. Twitter’s given me some awesome blurbage I reference in my abstracts. “’I think I've learned more about Fitnesse from Jim than anyone else. :-)  It was a great talk -- standing room only.’ Michael Eaton, http://is.gd/2ounG” Items like that, particularly ones you can hit via live URLs, give you immense credibility.
  • Write a concise abstract. The one paragraph of your abstract is like the one spoon tasters get at a chili competition. This is hard to do. You need to work really hard on making the one paragraph highly impactful. Fall right back to your elementary school fundamentals: introduction, body, conclusion. Set a hook with a great opening: “Bugs. Crashes. Malfunctions. Complete meltdowns. We run into difficulties in our work each and every day.” Follow that on with the value propositions to attendees and examples of what’s covered. Finish up with a great closer that will make your attendees’ mouths water, figuratively, at least.
  • Write a coherent abstract. I’ve been on a number of content selection committees, and I see most CodeMash submissions even though I’m not on its selection committee. I’m always amazed at the handful of unreadable, muddled, flat out awful submissions we get. Spend time to make sure your submission is clear. Don’t bother submitting if you won’t take this step. Tough love, but it’s true: incoherent submissions are nearly always immediately dropped from consideration.
  • Edit, re-edit, then get it reviewed. Write the draft, step away from it, come back and edit it later. Several times. Get the abstract out to your colleagues and friends for their feedback. Iterate through this several times.

Your speaker bio is every bit as important as your abstract, particularly if you’re not well-known by the content selection committee. Writing a great bio is a topic for another post, likely by someone else because I’m contrarian and non-conformist with my bios. Just do me one favor: make sure your bio isn’t longer than your submission…

Here’s an example of one of my abstracts. Feel free to borrow, copy, or outright steal it and adapt it as you need.

Title: Leadership 101

Abstract: It doesn’t matter what point you’re at in your career, you need to understand some fundamentals about good leadership. If you’re well into your career you need to know how to get the most out of your teams. If you’re just starting then you need to learn what good leadership looks like – and how to help ensure you’re getting the leadership you and your colleagues need to succeed. In this session you’ll learn basic concepts about respect, responsibility, communication, and teamwork, based on experience drawn from Jim’s years of serving in the military, playing competitive sports, and working in a wide range of jobs.

Feedback:

I knew Jim Holmes was a good speaker, but holy crap. That's a great way to start a day.” Joe O’Brien, http://is.gd/2ovna

“Jim Holmes is a fantastic speaker... Audience is completely engaged in his Leadership 101 talk at #erubycon” Raju Gandhi, http://is.gd/2ovxN

3 comments:

Jason said...

A concept that Cliff Atkinson discusses in Beyond Bullet Points is to structure your presentation in classic storytelling style. The format of the first "Act" of this story is very strict to only cover the Setting, Protagonist, Inbalance, Balance, and Solution using once sentence each in just as many slides.

I found that if you've adopted this structure for your presentation (or at least the intro to your talk), then those same five sentences also work very well as the abstract for your talk.

Dan Hounshell said...

Great post Jim. This one is definitely starred in my feed reader for future reference!

Sohan said...

Really good post. Once I took a business communication course during my MBA and learned about a communication trick called 'You attitude'. The idea is bascially replacing all I/We with You wherever possible. Then it not only attracts people, it addresses whats in it for them and also makes the writer actively think about this. If you take a look into the abstract, you will see all lines target 'You' intead of 'I'.

Good post, liked it.

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