How to Write a Good Abstract and Title for Presentation at a Conference

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
Translation: I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
-Blaise Pascal

Writing a good abstract and title for a presentation requires distilling the gist of a complex topic into a few short sentences. Poor abstracts make acceptance of the proposed presentation less likely and discourage potential members of the audience who would benefit. On the other hand, a good abstract and title allow the reader to quickly determine the relevance of the topic and provide confidence that the presentation is well structured, informative, and useful. Anyone who might wish to present at the symposium would benefit from following some simple rules to structure the abstract and title. This document lists some characteristics of good titles and abstracts and provides some practical guidance on how to write a good abstract.

The Abstract
A conference abstract can typically include four sections that answer at least four questions. The sections include Background, Approach, Findings, and Conclusion. At a minimum, answer the questions that correspond to these four sections.
– Background: Why did you do this?
– Approach: What did you do?
– Findings: What did you learn or discover?
– Conclusion: What does it mean?

Here are some questions to consider when you’re drafting your abstract. For each section, select the appropriate questions for your topic, answer them, and then combine the answers to create your abstract.

Background (Why did you do this?)
– What is the problem you are addressing? How are things done today?
– What is the difficulty and why?
– Why has this problem not been solved before?
– What did you expect or what is the hypothesis?

Approach (What did you do?)
– What kind of data did you collect and how did you collect it?
– How did you assess the data?
– Who were the subjects? How many?
– Is this a case study? An experience report? A pilot? Did you set up experiments?

Findings or Results (What did you learn?)
– Did a new technique or approach work or not?
– What new information or data is provided?
– What was confirmed or refuted?
– Were there surprises?

Conclusion (What does this mean?)
– What can we now do differently or that we couldn’t do before?
– Who will be affected by these results? Does this apply to team members? Team leads? Coaches? Other stakeholders?
– Will something be cheaper, faster, or better?

The Title
State your take-home message, or key idea, in a single short sentence. The title should accurately summarize the abstract. The title helps to classify your presentation and set the proper expectations. You may use a title and a short sub-title. It is useful to include important aspects of your presentation in the title. For example, a practical presentation might include “How to”. Similarly a research topic might include “Pilot”, “Case Study”, or or “Survey”. Strive for clarity rather than being clever or provocative.


About Bill Nichols

PhD in Physics from Carnegie Mellon University I'm a software team coach and instructor with the TSP Team at the Software Engineering Institute
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