Abstract Thinking

Conference season is upon us once again – a chance to showcase your work, listen to others and meet up with fellow scientists in far flung places (some more exotic than others). Giving a talk or presenting a poster makes the trip all the more worthwhile and productive, putting you in the spotlight and opening up opportunities for helpful comments and suggestions, potential collaborations or even a new research job. But how can you maximise the chances that your research receives the attention it deserves during the meeting?

Obviously you need some interesting results to disseminate to your fellow delegates, but you can make them more noticeable by submitting an eye-catching abstract ahead of the meeting. Not only will this improve your chances of being chosen to give a talk, it will also mean people notice your research when they scan through the (sometimes hundreds of) summaries, before and during the meeting. Try out this formula to help you stand out from the crowd:


Step 1: Set the scene – WHAT’s the question/current knowledge? This is your opportunity to draw in the reader and tease their curiosity so that they want to read on. The aim is to entice them to come to your talk or your poster.

Step 2: Write WHY you have done it. What is the main aim of your research? What are you trying to add to the current knowledge and why are you doing it?

Step 3: Write HOW you have done it. Only give general details about the methodology. All too often PhD students and early career researchers tend to get bogged down in the detail of the methods. Although this might represent about 70% of what you, don’t be tempted to make it 70% of your abstract.

Step 4: Write only your MAIN results. Again, don’t get distracted with small details. Cut to the main findings and retain your reader’s interest. They will probably have scanned quickly through the abstract to locate this information so don’t disappoint them.

Step 5: What is the SIGNIFICANCE of the results? So you’ve done these experiments and got these results – so what? Don’t assume your reader will be able to interpret them – you need to highlight the significance of them in relation to Steps 1 and 2. This then creates a complete story – one worth hearing about.

Step 6: Think up a catchy (but accurate) title. It’s probably best to wait until you’ve written your abstract before you think up a title so that it reflects the content. Pull out a key phrase or ‘soundbite’ from the text or think of a play on words, but make sure that it’s not misleading or inaccurate.

Happy conferencing and if you can’t be there in person, try the meeting’s Twitter hashtag to see what’s going on. For example, I’ve been to Hawaii recently on #plantbio17 🙂

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