So you want to start conference speaking? Craft an abstract

4 min readPublished January 06, 2020Updated May 02, 2022

This is the second post in a series on getting started as a conference speaker. This post focuses on how to create an abstract for your talk. Links to other posts in the series can be found at the end of this post.

After you have an idea for the conference talk you want to give, the next step is to create an abstract that succinctly explains the talk and grabs the audience's (and conference organizers’) attention.

A good abstract will answer the following questions

  1. Why is the talk important? What is the value proposition?
  2. What will the talk teach? What is the outcome or takeaway for the audience?
  3. How will it achieve that outcome?
  4. And any additional information to help the audience decide if this talk is for them — who is it relevant to? what types of teams or organizations will find this helpful? etc.

A good abstract will answer all of these questions in 3-5 sentences. I’ve seen longer abstracts and depending on the talk and the conference, that’s ok. But 3-5 sentences is a good rule of thumb to follow for creating a strong abstract that will work well for a variety of conferences and audiences.

It can be challenging to answer those questions concisely and still sound interesting and inviting. I’ve found that the easiest way to do this is to not start by writing the abstract. Instead, build up to it with a bit of prewriting.

My process is heavily informed by Write, Speak, Code’s curriculum and I’ve found it to be immensely helpful in breaking the writer’s block that comes from trying to type up an abstract on a blank page.

Here is the template I use to work up to writing an abstract.

1. Brainstorm

I start with figuring out what format of a talk I want to give (my sweet spot is 30-40 minutes but some people prefer longer, some shorter). Then I brainstorm/word vomit/mind map all the ideas I have that I want to address in the talk in some way. This allows me to see if I have enough content to fill my desired timeslot.

2. Audience

From there I think about who my ideal audience is. No talk will appeal to everyone and you often want a bit narrower audience so you can tailor your content to their specific needs. When you target too broad of an audience, you run the risk of making a bland talk that appeals to no one instead of everyone.

3. Outcome

After I know who I want to talk to, I think about what I want them to take away from my talk. What do I want them to learn? What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to think differently about? What process or idea do I want them to try on their teams or projects after they see my talk?

4. Outline

Then I try to put together an outline of my talk. This is a super simple outline at this point, just the level 1 headings of the topics I hope to cover. This helps me get a sense of the flow of the talk that I can use to inform my abstract.

5. Description

The last step before I write my abstract is to just long-form describe what my talk is. I’ll use the information from the previous sections to write a paragraph or two describing what my talk is about, who it’s for, and why it’s important.

6. Abstract 🎉

Finally, I use all of this prewriting to write my 3-5 sentence abstract that answers those 4 questions from above. I edit my sentences to make sure I have a little punchier language than my long-form paragraphs but nothing that appears in my abstract is net-new from what I just spent an hour or two thinking about during the pre-writing.

Writing an abstract is HARD. You want to clearly explain why your talk is going to be worth the audience's time while also being entertaining and sounding smart. But don't overthink it! A little prewriting and following a process that works for you can go a long way in making this step easier. After you have an abstract you're proud of, you have to write a bio to tell the organizers and audience a little about yourself.

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