How to Write an Abstract for a Talk/Meeting (without Embarrassing Anyone Especially Yourself)

After the posts about grant abstracts, I got a couple of requests for more on abstracts. What is below is from a grantsmanship/paper-man-ship(?) seminar I run for new grad students.

The goals of an abstract is to inform other people about your general research results. It is one of the primary ways of communicating with other scientists. A good abstract introduces your work to others and encourages them to attend your talk/read your paper.

Some general considerations: Pay attention to word limitations and stay within allotted length. There are places that will just cut you off if you go over the limits. Try to summarize your work; do not say “Results will be discussed”. That will only infuriate people. Finally, as in all writing, try for an active voice.

The overall format, as is true for a paper, can be in four parts. There are other styles, but in the beginning it’s better to use tried and true:

  • Statement of the problem, question or hypothesis, and why it is of interest.
  • Sample/Methods used
  • Summarize the results
  • Conclude by giving the significance of the major findings.

So, here are some specific suggestions for the four points above and examples for 150 words limit. This is 147 words.

1. First or first two sentences should introduce your problem or main question: what did you do and why is this work interesting to anyone else?  This is the place to put your work in context. It has the potential to bring you people to talk to you, to interact or even collaborate with you. Science is a team sport, and this is one way to get in the lineup.

Transgenic mice are smaller than controls, but whether their respiratory rate differs from normal mice is unknown. 

 Stroke is known to compromise walking ability. We wished to determine the impact of different substrates on walking, beyond changes due to normal aging.

2. Summarize your sample and your methods (this should be two-three sentences). What did you do? You need enough so people know what you did, but this is not the most important part of the abstract. If someone has detailed questions, they can ask you.

We recruited 30 subjects, 10 6 weeks post-stroke with average age of 65, 10 age matched controls, and 10 25 year olds. Subjects underwent a standard treadmill protocol, with 3 different surfaces: smooth, compliant and bumpy. We measured the number of falls, stumbles and use of hands for balance.

3. Summarize your results (two or three sentences). What did you find out. This is probably the most important part. People want to know what you found. While it by necessity must be succinct, you also need to make sure it matches up with the methods. Sometimes you have to include negative results. Sometimes you have to lump results.

Both control and stroke elderly differed from the young on the compliant surface for all three measures. The stroke patients differed from controls on the bumpy surface for falls and stumbles. There were no differences with the smooth surface.

4. Conclusions, significance, take home message (one or at most two sentences). Again, this is a way to draw in people who might be in a related but not directly connected sub-field.

Although walking and balance appear to change with age, stroke further compromises the ability of the elderly to walk. The standard use of hands for balance does not seem sufficient to prevent stumbles and falls.

If you have more than 150 words, you can expand. Usually the best place to expand is the results/discussion. You need enough methods detail so people understand what you did, but it is not the best use of the space. People are mostly interested in results.

And of course, you should be reading other people’s abstracts. If you find ones that strike you as good, save them. You can’t plagiarize, but you can use their structure as a guidelines.


3 thoughts on “How to Write an Abstract for a Talk/Meeting (without Embarrassing Anyone Especially Yourself)

  1. I agree with your format, but am more often than not faced with the situation of having to submit abstracts on work that is not yet done. When one is submitting an abstract for a conference that is 6-9 months out, I often don’t know what the results will be, or if we will even get results at all, let alone having any conclusions. In these cases, I typically lay out the motivation for the work, give some vague description of what we plan to do, and then resort to “results will be discussed.” This is very common in the case of student talks, because we try to encourage junior students to present their work even when it’s very new and very much unfinished. A student can get a lot accomplished in 6-9 months, but we usually have no idea exactly how it will turn out or if the project will take a twist. Is there a better solution than what I propose in your experience?

    How do you solve this problem?

  2. Pingback: Problems with Abstracts | Mistress of the Animals

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