Advice on Writing an Abstract for a Conference Presentation

Distilling the essence of your work into a single paragraph that tells a comprehensive and cogent story is a challenge. As the French mathematician Pascal once wrote: "I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter." Here are the essential elements of writing a good conservation biology abstract, presented, in the spirit of conciseness, in four sentences:

  • Develop a title that is informative and interesting to help attract an audience.
  • Follow the standard format of a scientific paper with Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion each condensed to one to three sentences.
  • Tell a coherent story that culminates in your main conclusion, hopefully one with direct relevance to conservation, not just a call for further research.
  • Provide critical evidence to support your conclusion, preferably with specific, quantitative results.

With these guidelines in mind it may be useful to read some abstracts from an earlier SCB conference (you can find these archived here). You will find many abstracts that do not follow these guidelines very well. Some of this occurs because certain topics do not fit well within these guidelines (e.g., a review of how wetland regulation policies are evolving will probably not have Methods and Results). Some of this occurs because it is difficult to write a good abstract, and many people do not take enough time to do it well. When writing abstracts for conferences there is often a gap of several months between writing the abstract and making the presentation. This can lead to abstracts that conclude with open-ended promises such as “Results will be discussed in the context of reforming endangered species legislation.” It is better to tell the story as you know it now, and if it evolves during the interval between abstract submission and the conference, which is likely, you can still tell the new version.

Why bother spending a couple hours writing a paragraph? First, many conferences have a finite capacity for presentations and thus a poor abstract could lead to outright rejection. Furthermore, the capacity for full-length oral presentations is often especially tight, so an abstract submitted for an oral presentation slot may be redirected to a format (poster session or a speed presentation session) that you might not prefer. Second, many conferees read abstracts to decide which presentations to attend, so a good title and abstract can increase your audience. Third, if you are a student you should consider competing in the Student Award competition for which abstracts are the first filter.

The format for submitting an abstract is very rigid, with a maximum length, a particular style for reporting your affiliation, and so on. Follow the format exactly. Improperly formatted abstracts are a huge headache for conference organizers and submissions are sometimes rejected on this basis alone. This is especially true for the SCB Student Award competition (for which there are special requirements for extended abstracts.) Note that if English is your second language you can ask for help with your writing from the SCB Student Affairs Committee (look for details on their website).

You will also be asked to designate a topical area for your submission. Examining SCB’s archived conference proceedings may give you some idea of the types of presentations with which you will share a session if you choose, for example, “stream ecology” versus “fish conservation” versus “water policy.”

When you submit your abstract you will have to indicate your preference for giving an oral presentation, a speed presentation, or a poster. Many people prefer to give full-length oral presentations because these are somewhat more prestigious due to the limited capacity for them at most SCB conferences. On the other hand, many people are switching to an SCB innovation, speed presentations, in which the first hour of a session is devoted to many brief (4-minute) talks and the second hour used for extended small-group conversations. A poster presentation may be the best choice if this is your first conference or if you have major difficulty talking to a large audience. Both speed presentations and posters are likely to be more productive that full-length oral presentations in terms of having real dialogue with someone who is keenly interested in your work. They are also often more appropriate for reporting on a research project that is still in progress.

This material was adapted by Malcolm Hunter, University of Maine, from “Saving the Earth as a career: Advice on becoming a conservation professional” by M.L. Hunter, David Lindenmayer, and Aram J.K. Calhoun, published in 2007 by Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom. Click here to purchase the book
(All royalties from this book support activities of the SCB Education and Student Affairs Comittee)