Narrating Your Research: The Keys to a Successful Conference Abstract
Jeremy A. Rud
PhD Student, Department of Linguistics
University of California Davis
Narrating your research: The keys to a successful conference abstract
Whether you slowly hone the abstract of your latest research study as the project develops or produce it in a single flourish the night before the call for papers closes, writing a conference abstract doesn’t have to be intimidating or painful. A successful conference abstract engages the reader, exhibits scholarly rigor, and narrates your unique contribution to the question at hand. There are several aspects of an abstract that merit special consideration in the writing process: the key components of your research study, language use, and narrative creativity.
Key components. An abstract is a research study in miniature. It should contain, in brief, each of the essential components of a research paper: the research question(s) you answer, the study’s context situated in relation to existing literature, the methods you used, the results you found, and the conclusions you drew from them. Though conferences are generally accepting of works in progress, abstract reviewers want to see a well-rounded study with clear conclusions, regardless of the stage of this work in your broader research program. This means that your research questions should be specific and clear; your introduction and background should provide sufficient information for reviewers to connect your study with current work in the field; your methods should be descriptive and your data set quantified and delineated; and you should discuss your results and draw conclusions directly considering your research questions and previous literature. This may seem like a lot to include in a few hundred words, but all of these can be accomplished in a few sentences each. Don’t worry about incorporating every nuance of your study. The abstract should highlight the building blocks of your work and you can leave the rest for the presentation. Lastly, the title of your presentation should not only be attention-grabbing, but should accurately reflect the content of the abstract.
Person. It’s becoming more and more common for scholars to write research studies in first person, especially in the social sciences. Personally, I welcome this move away from the opaque, passive-language gymnastics that hide the very real decisions that human scholars make throughout the research process. I recommend writing in the first person as a direct acknowledgement of your agency as the creator of this knowledge. Because you also have a word count to consider, active voice will save you a few words for content that really matters. Of course, each conference or professional society may have its own preferences, so make sure to review the abstract requirements carefully before submitting.
Tense. Another thing to pay close attention to is your use of tense in the abstract. Although you may not have completed every phase of the project, and may be submitting the abstract to a conference that won’t take place for months, heavy use of future tense can diminish your credibility. It can indicate that you are writing about the topic for the first time, have yet to conduct any part of the research, and/or don’t quite know what you will actually present at the conference. Don’t be disingenuous, but don’t sell yourself short either. Each step you’ve made towards completing the study is meaningful, and your abstract should reflect this.
Narrating your research. More than a laundry list of technical details, an abstract is also a narrative. You’re telling a story of your research project, from its conception to its conclusion. Even more, you’re narrating the way you understand the world through your unique perspective on language and illustrating your vision of that world with one more piece of the puzzle filled in. Your abstract should vividly depict what this world looks like and what it means to the reader. It should draw them in and guide them through each development in the plot, lead them to its climax, and explain its denouement. It can be creative and engaging without being suspenseful or mysterious, however. By overtly stating your conclusions in the abstract, you not only show that you will present a comprehensive research project, but also prime the reader to agree with your argument each step of the way.
In the end, there’s no formula for a perfect abstract; each one can, and should, be distinct. But like the best stories, the best abstracts are built on strong foundations, use language carefully and creatively, and lead the reader to see the world in a new way.
Jeremy A. Rud is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of California Davis. His research focuses on the role of language in the asylum process and addresses issues of asylum seeker credibility at intersections of public policy, narrative performance, and implicit bias. At the AAAL 2021 conference, his abstract for the paper, “Can AI determine credible fear? Challenging the state's use of text analytics in asylum adjudications” was awarded as one of the best proposals submitted to the conference by a graduate student.