Writing Conference Proposals
26 Jan 2015 edit
I've had several office hours sessions in the last couple of weeks, and one topic that comes up again and again is how to write a talk description.
If you think about it, conference organizers don't have a whole lot to go on when they're choosing talks, unless they already know who you are. Even if your name is well-known, though, organizers may still not know who you are -- lots of conferences are taking a blind approach to selecting speakers. That means that no matter who you are, your talk description might be the only thing organizers have on which to base their decision. When you give your talk, you'll need to engage your audience; the abstract is your chance to engage the organizer.
After answering the question several times, I've realized that I have a pretty explainable -- some might call it formulaic -- approach to writing abstracts for a certain common type of talk. It works well for talks about how you solved a problem, talks about how you came to learn a thing you didn't know, and even "10 things you didn't know about X" talks. I thought I'd try to explain it here.
Paragraph 1: The context
The first paragraph is where you set the scene, and make it clear to your reader that they have been in the situation you're going to talk about. This is where you establish a connection, baiting a hook that you'll set later.
Paragraph 2: Well, actually ...
The second paragraph is where you break the bad news, which savvy readers may already know: the thing you laid out in the first paragraph is more complicated than it seems, or has downsides that people don't realize, or generally is a bad approach ... but only with the benefit of hindsight, which you just happen to have.
Paragraph 3: The promise
You've successfully induced a bit of anxiety in your reader -- and a strong desire to know what they don't know. The hook is set, so the last paragraph is the time to promise to relieve that anxiety -- but only if your talk is chosen!
It turns out that in the process of writing your abstract, you've also written the most basic outline for your talk: on stage, you'll want to set the context, explain the complexity, then deliver on your promise. Pretty handy, if you ask me.