Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Awesome abstracts anyone?

So, things are starting to get a bit more serious for me in this whole postgraduate study adventure, and my supervisor is starting to push me (oh-so-gently and enthusiastically) into submitting abstracts for conference presentations. I'm used to giving presentations - I've been doing it for years in my work so I have no great anxieties about public speaking. And I'm also pretty confident my research is starting to generate some interesting and worthwhile things to say. BUT I have no real experience of academic conferences and I'm not quite sure how best to go about writing the abstract. (I'm not even worrying about the actual presentation content at this stage. I figure I'll tackle that as and when something actually gets accepted!)

The first conference I'm looking at is a big medieval/early modern shindig here in NZ early next year. They require a 200 word abstract for a 20 minute paper. Some of the other CFPs my supervisor has pushed my way ask for anything up to 500 words, but presentations always seem to be about 20 minutes in length. (Curious: is this some kind of 'gold standard' in terms of academic conferences?) I figure such a short time slot requires something really tight and specific - like a brief source-based case study or example that illustrates a wider theme or interpretation - rather than anything broader or more generalised. Does that sound like a good way to approach it? And is it normal to quote from or reference sources in the abstract? Or would you just give an outline of your argument and where it fits into the existing scholarship on the topic? (Or do you even worry about that second bit?)

So, questions, questions. Naturally, I'll be asking my supervisor for her help, but do any of you have any tips for writing a really kick-ass abstract? Or links to good posts or advice on the best way to structure it? I remember Notorious PhD had some good stuff up towards the end of last year (maybe?) on seminar presentations, but damned if I can find it now.

On that note, I'm presenting my current research project to the world (well, to all the bods from the School of History, Philosophy and Classics anyway) for the first time at a postgrad Research Seminar this Friday. When I was doing the methodology weekender a couple of weeks ago, a few of us were talking about what we were going to be presenting and my topic seemed to arouse quite a bit of interest. On the face of it, it sounds pretty racy - there's nothing like a medieval chronicler for giving you good opening lines to work with. I just hope I don't disappoint!


Bardiac said...

The best advice I've heard is that your paper/presentation is not a joke. That is, the punch line shouldn't come at the end.

I guess the thing is, make it apparent that you have an argument to make rather than you have a topic?

Good luck!

clio's disciple said...

In a 200-word abstract, I usually try to hit the following points:
--what topic / question the paper is exploring (if the conference is a long way off, I may not know the specifics of the argument yet)
--why the topic / question matters (very briefly relate it to trends in scholarship)
--what sources I'm using that make this a new & interesting take

I also find it useful to remember that, should your paper be accepted, no one is going to check it against the abstract. If you change direction by the time you're making the presentation, that's fine (though you should stick to the overall theme of the panel or conference).

Good luck!

Good Enough Woman said...

I'm sure your supervisor can offer very helpful feedback after you're written a draft. My supervisor gave me great help last year on my abstract and the subsequent paper (and, yes, 20 minutes seems to be a pretty regular standard, and, for me, 20 minutes meant about 10 pages. Best to err on the side of 8 or 9 pages, I'm sure). I practiced reading my paper out loud . . . a lot!

As for quoting other people: I would say not to, unless everyone is buzzing about a specific critic or theory. Instead, you can mention the issue or point that is "at play" among the scholar(s) you would think of quoting, and save the specifics for the paper. Does that make sense?

I'm going to be working on another abstract soon, too, for a big conference in the UK that might be out of my league. We'll see.

Good luck!

dr ngo said...


- Yes, 20 minutes in the gold standard, pretty much around the world. It allows for three papers + discussion in 1:30 to 2:00 sessions.

- As a relative Noobie in your field (I gather) you are right to avoid big broad questions. Even if you actually have the answer to "How Dark Were The Dark Ages?" no one is going to believe it in advance and show up at your session.

- So what you want to do is suggest that you are offering something small (but not trivial) and NEW: a question not previously asked, a source not previously exploited. You want the conference organizers, and later the attenders, to say "We'd better see/hear that paper, in case it may actually be useful to us."

- To that extent, don't waste many of your precious 200 words on any but the most crucial sources, e.g., the new primary documents you're utilizing, or the single major scholar whose Thesis you are amplifying, amending, or refuting. It will be assumed that you are on top of the "state of the field" and will reference the existing scholarship as needed.

- You appear to have access to a lot of advice on these matters, but if at some stage you would like an conference-experienced *non* medievalist to cast an eye over a draft, let me know: ngowen /at/ nc % dot % rr % dot % com

Bavardess said...

Thanks so much everyone - I knew you'd all have some good advice for me!
Bardiac - very good point about focusing on the argument, rather than the overall topic.
Clio - that seems like a really sensible way to structure things.
GEW - when you say 10 pages, is that roughly a 12 point font, double-spaced? I'm not totally hung up on the paper length, but it would be useful to know as a guideline. I *always* end up with way to much stuff. And good luck with the big UK gig!
Drngo - I really appreciate the offer. I know it's often very useful to get someone with an 'outside eye' to look things over. And yes, I am indeed a 'noobie'! Just starting to get to grips with publishing and conferences and the like, but I'm so glad I have all you wiser heads out there to call on in times of need :).

magistra said...

I think most things have been covered, but a few extra points. Firstly, it's worth including some specific keywords in your abstract if you know you're going to be covering that topic in depth. So say you're looking at "Richard II's kingship", rather than just "fourteenth century kingship" etc. It means your audience know what to expect, and since more and more titles and abstracts get put on the web, people can find you via Google and know you're doing interesting work, even if they can't get to hear it.

As for length, I work on the basis of speaking at 160 words per minute, so for 20 minutes my target length is 3200 words. That's a nice comprehensible speaking pace, you've got time to pause at key points etc. If you calculate that in order to give your paper in 20 minutes you'd have to speak at 200 wpm, you know something's wrong.

Good Enough Woman said...

I just check my paper, and it was actually 11 pages and about 3400 words. It just about the full 20 minutes, but not over. Better to aim for less. But as I said, I practiced reading it aloud, a LOT, so I knew exactly how long it would take. I highly recommend reading aloud a lot during the writer process. Doing so will help you know how your language sounds, which can be different from how it reads. Also, you'll keep a good sense of how many minutes you're getting into.

I know I'm getting ahead of the abstract, I'm sure you'll get some papers accepted soon!

Bavardess said...

Great point about keywords, Magistra - thank you. It's good, also, to have those indications of approximate paper length-to-time available from you and Good Enough Woman. With the presentations I usually do in a work context, I tend to just be talking to some points on a Powerpoint, rather than 'reading a paper', so to speak, and I'm usually not trying to convey anything terribly deep or complex. So, I'm finding I have to 're-tune' my presentation style a bit for the academic context, as it tends to be a case of trying to communicate much more complex ideas in quite a short period of time. I did a presentation today on my current research at our School's postgrad research seminar, and I did find I needed the written paper to anchor me, even though most of the time I was talking to the audience rather than reading it verbatim. (I'd practised reading it aloud before hand, per GEW's advice, which definitely helped a lot. And I did manage to come in pretty close to the 15 minute limit!)

Good Enough Woman said...

BTW, considering all of the typos in my last comment, it might be best to ignore my advice altogether!

Glad your talk went well!

AnneE said...

I teach this how-to stuff, and all the abstract advice here is great. Abstracts need to do all the things mentioned but also sound really INTERESTING. For the paper itself, reading it out loud to yourself is excellent advice. I guess I speak more slowly - I work on no more than 600 words in 4 minutes (radio speed) and really prefer 500, so that's only 2500 for 20 minutes. Both paper and abstract have to have a clear "story", I reckon. I always write a crisp, entertaining paper for presentation, then a more formal and often longer one for handing-in purposes! Looking forward to hearing how you get on.

Academic, Hopeful said...

You seem to have the abstract thing pretty well covered.

Quick tip for racy presentations - a good (disarming) tactic is to direct the audience with some concerns you have/help you'd like.

Also - presenters often speed up their talk at the very moments when audience members require things to be slow and clear. The heart races at the controversial and juicy bits and I guess we equate fast pace with sounding clever, but one thing I have learned is to present fewer points well, clearly and even a little theatrically, and to SLOW DOWN.

Good luck!

Bavardess said...

Thanks for the tip on the words/ minutes ratio, Anne. It seems that when it doubt, it's probably better to go with a bit less than too much.
AH - Good tip about 'softening up' the audience with a request for help/advice. And I definitely have that problem with speeding up, though usually it's worst in the first few minutes, before my nerves settle. I find a couple of deep breaths usually gets me back on track.

Digger said...

These are all great tips! I just submitted an abstract myself for an upcoming conference... must be the season! 20 mins is standard for archaeology also.

Reading aloud is invaluable; reading aloud to someone else is even better -- they can point out where you're not making sense, or where things might flow better in different order, or suggest the too-corny jokes get the axe.

I strongly suggest practicing with your graphics a few times; it's really easy to go over time when you ad-lib about your visuals. The ad-libbing can be really good; the going over is really bad. A couple of minutes short of the 20 you have is not a bad thing -- if the session is running over, you just helped fix it. If the session is running fast/on time, you might get to take a question.

If you'd like another pair of eyes, I volunteer.