Preparing a Technical Session Part 3: Writing an Abstract

So you’ve come up with a great idea for a session and now you have to translate that idea into a thorough abstract that helps both organizers and attendees understand what to expect from your session. This can make the difference between you getting a session at your favorite conference or not so don’t take this step lightly.

In this post I’ll walk you through some tips for writing a session abstract. Now there’s still no guaranteeing your session will get picked because there’s a lot of factors that go into a conference selection but I hope these tips will make your submission somewhat less stressful. Just as a reminder in this blog series on preparing a technical session I’ll cover the following steps:

  1. Picking a Topic
  2. Coming up with a Title
  3. Writing an Abstract
  4. Building the PowerPoint
  5. Building the Demos
  6. Delivering the Presentation

Writing the Abstract

Think of your session abstract as the appetizer to your meal. If you have a bad appetizer then you probably don’t have high hopes for the upcoming meal. The same is true about a session abstract. If an abstract is not put together well then it’s hard for the consumer (event organizers and attendees) to imagine a great session. Having said that let’s look at a few tips to make a great “appetizer” or abstract.

Grab my Attention

How is your session different than everyone else’s?  Why would someone reviewing hundreds of abstracts pick your session?  Do you think your topic is just that original?  In most large conferences you are bound to pick a topic that someone else has also submitted so what sets yours apart from the others?  Don’t let these questions haunt you but genuinely use them as a tool to ensure your session grabs the attention of the abstract reviewer.

Try to hook the reader in with the very first sentence.  This can be done by starting with a bold statement.  For example, you could say, “Stop struggling to tune your nightly data load when you could be running 60% faster”.  With a statement like that you’ve got my attention and I’m curious how you are going to accomplish such a feat.

Make the Audience Clear

It should be very clear who your session’s target audience is.  If you need to be straight forward and call out who the session is for in the abstract then do it!  You will likely have a large audience of unhappy people if the expectation was given that attendees would learn advanced query tuning strategies but your entire presentation is in Excel.  So help your audience understand that your session is for them.

Get to the Point

You don’t have much time to draw the reader in so don’t waste they’re valuable time explaining the details of what page latches are.  That’s what your session will do!  Instead of going through everything you’ll cover in the session do these things instead:

  1. State the problem (ideally in a way that hooks the reader in)
  2. Describe why it’s important or why the attendee should care
  3. Without getting into the details describe how you’re going to solve the problem

Be Specific

Yes, I know I just said don’t get into the details but that’s different than being specific. Giving the details would mean you write a 3 page abstract.  While, being specific means you’re clear on how you’re solving the problem. For example, don’t say you are going to create a BI solution to solve the problem.  Instead, say you’re going to create a BI solution that uses the following tools in this way.  You should also avoid acronyms that aren’t obvious to every attendee at the conference.

Explain the End Goal

Your abstract should tell the attendee what they will have learned after watching your talk.  For example, you may say “By the end of the session you will have learned how to load a Data Warehouse using SSIS”.  This gives attendees a clear idea of what they are getting by attending the session.  If I already know how to load a Data Warehouse then I know this session is not for me and I won’t be disappointed by it.

Read, Reread and Have Someone Else Read it

If you’ve decided to submit a session to a major conference I know you’re very passionate about the topic.  Unfortunately, the most common reason why sessions are not accepted is because despite your passion you don’t save time to review your abstract before submitting it.  Common spelling mistakes and grammar errors can cause what would likely be a great session unusable to a committee in charge on reviewing sessions.  So do yourself a favor and after you write an abstract read it, then reread it, and then have someone else read it because often we read a sentence how we want it to sound rather than what it actually says.

Other Good References

If you have other references please share them and I’ll add them to this list.

Preparing a Technical Session Part 2: Coming up with a Title

Earlier this month I began a blog series on preparing to do a technical talk. In that first post I discussed some strategies for coming up with a topic, which is ultimately the first step in your preparation.

In this post I’ll walk you through some tips for coming up with a title for your presentation. Just as a reminder in this blog series on preparing a technical session I’ll cover the following steps:

  1. Picking a Topic
  2. Coming up with a Title
  3. Writing an Abstract
  4. Building the PowerPoint
  5. Building the Demos
  6. Delivering the Presentation

Coming up with a Title

You may be thinking once you’ve come up with a topic you’ve got the title nailed down too but I actually see these are two different things. The topic is the general idea of what you’ll be talking about.  This gives you a guide one how you’ll work out the details. The title is one of those details. For example, my topic might be “Intro to SSIS” but I make the title “Getting Started with Integration Services”. This title is very clear on what the topic is and what depth the audience can expect.

Why is it important to have a good title? Well let’s be honest many people attending conferences probably only look at a small version of the schedule that doesn’t include the detail abstract so the title is all they have to go off. If your title is not clear on what you’ll be discussing then why would someone attend.  Let’s go a little deeper and look at some tips you may want to use when naming a session.

Don’t be too Cute

Do you consider yourself a creative person? Do you like to be unique and stand out in a pack? Good, now stop it! I’m kidding to some extent. You want your session to stand out and if the only thing people have to go by is the title than you may want it to be a little more creative or zany with your session title. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it’s still very clear what your session is about. Here’s a couple good examples of being creative with your session title while still being clear and interesting:

  • Help! I’m a new DBA, Where do I start?!
  • DBA Mythbusters
  • Triggers: Born Evil or Misunderstood?

These sessions stand out but are still very clear what the talk will be about. On the opposite end of the spectrum here some session titles that are certainly unique but I have no idea what to expect if I were to attend.

  • SQL Server: We’re not in Kansas Anymore
  • Kill “BI”ll Quentin Tarantino Style

These sessions tried too hard to be cute and went past being unique to just being confusing.

Short and Sweet

I’ve often made the mistake of wanting to be so clear about my session that my title starts to look more like a poorly written paragraph. The intent is to eliminate confusion but what happens is without knowing it you begin talking people out of your session just by them reading the title. Here’s one I wish I could have back:

  • Using SQL Server 2014 to Build Analysis Service Multidimensional Cubes

Good topic, but a poorly written title. Way too long and complicated when it really didn’t need to be. If I could rewrite it I would simply name it “Building Analysis Services Cubes”. All of the other details that I decided to put in the title should have been saved for the abstract section. That way if someone was wondering which version of SQL Server I would be demonstrating then they could read the abstract to find out more.

Use Active Language

Using active language is a good method for making certain that your session topic is clear. This helps your potential audience know in many cases the kind of demos (if any) to expect. Words like “Building” or “Developing” tell your audience that they can expect demos. For example, if I went to a session titled “Developing Reporting Services Reports” I would expect demonstrations not PowerPoint slides that show me how to develop a reports. Here’s some examples of session using active language:

  • Building Dashboards with Your SalesForce Data
  • Overcoming Data Warehouse Design Challenges
  • Getting Started with Indexes

I don’t think it’s mandatory that you use this tip for every session you do but if you’re struggling for a title then this may help.

Preparing a Technical Session Part 1: Picking a Topic

So you’ve decided or perhaps were told to do a technical presentation. If this is something that’s new for you then you may be going through a variety of emotions. You may start excited in anticipation of the event but quickly that changes to anxiety when you realize all the work that’s ahead of you.

Delivering a presentation regardless of the subject matter can be a challenge. Even if you’re a seasoned speaker there’s several steps that lead to you completing a successful presentation.

In this blog series on preparing a technical session I’ll cover the following steps:

  1. Picking a Topic
  2. Coming up with a Title
  3. Writing an Abstract
  4. Building the PowerPoint
  5. Building the Demos
  6. Delivering the Presentation

While discussing these I’ll be sharing not only how I personally go through this process but also feedback I’ve gathered from peers. The good news is with more experience these steps will likely flow more naturally for you and with hopefully less stress.

My goal is to help guide those that are new to presenting through the process, help them understand what to expect and hopefully help grow a larger pool of speakers at events. 

Picking a Topic

When you submit to a major conference deciding the topic to focus on is your first step to getting started. This step is clearly critical because the idea that you come up with will impact the rest of your preparation. If you’re in need of a topic and have the equivalent to “writer’s block” then here are some tips to help you’re brainstorming process.

Talk About Your Passion

Have you ever been assigned a presentation topic that you’re not really passionate about? This may happen more in a corporate environment when you’re given a topic that just has to be covered with co-workers. When you’re not excited about a topic then it can often show in your preparation and delivery of the content.

If you are passionate about a topic then more likely write a more compelling abstract, be more proactive about content development and even deliver the information in a way that connects better with the audience. Now keep in mind some people may not be passionate about the same things you are so try not to be offended when others don’t share your excitement about a topic.

Present On What You Know

This seems obvious but you’d be surprised how many new speakers pick topics that are completely out of their comfort zone. If you’re a new presenter then this whole process may be foreign to you already so don’t add any extra pressure on your self to learn a completely new topic. Now, having said that I do see some experienced presenters occasionally pick topics that maybe aren’t necessarily completely new to them but are certainly going to challenge them to learn a few new skills. So in short if you’re new at this pick a topic you know well and if you’ve been doing this for a number of years then do what works for you!

Use Things You’ve Done At Work

Give yourself some credit. You’re smart and pretty good at what you do! I bet you’ve come up with some pretty inventive ways of solving problems while at work. Why not share some of the design patterns you’ve used to help others?

Don’t worry I’m not suggesting that do anything that would hurt your company and potentially cause you to lose your job. I bet any problem you experience at work are the same kind of problems that others are experiencing. Why can’t you take your solution and generalize the details, including the data, so it shouldn’t matter what your place of business is. The other benefit is these topics are often the most popular because they’re based on real world problem solving. My number one goal when I attend a session is to figure out how I can use what I just learned when I get back to the office. What better way to solve that then by showing problems you’ve actually solved at work.

Is Anyone Else Interested?

If you’re debating whether or not a topic would get much interest then ask? Take to social media with a poll of topics you’re thinking about presenting on and see what people like best. Not only are you getting valuable information back but you’re also doing a little early promoting for your session.

Journal Topic Ideas

Ideas can come at any moment. If you’re not prepared than you could have a stroke of brilliance and before you know if you’ve forgotten it. Be prepared and keep a pen and paper handy, or if you’re living in this decade sign up for Evernote or OneNote and log your topic ideas in a digital journal.

PASS Summit 2012 Recordings Available

Did you attend PASS Summit and miss out on some sessions because there were so many or you were busy networking?  Good news!  The recordings are now available for free to watch streaming for all those who attended the conference now here.

If you weren’t an attendee you can still watch the sessions for a small price here.  Enjoy the great content!

Building Dynamic SSRS Reports with Analysis Services Recording and Code

Thanks to all who attended my webinar last Thursday on Building Dynamic Cube Reports.  You can find my code

Recording:

http://pragmaticworks.com/LearningCenter/FreeTrainingWebinars/WebinarDetails.aspx?ResourceId=470

Code:

http://sdrv.ms/RqxbcF

There are several reports in here that step you through the changes I made throughout the webinar.

Also, look for my upcoming SSRS Master Classes that will take you Reporting Services skills to the next level!

Upcoming Webinar: Building Dynamic SSRS Reports with Analysis Services

Join me next week for a really fun presentation on building Dynamic SSRS reports using Analysis Services cubes as a data source.  This webinar will demonstrate how you can use one of the underutilized features of Analysis Services called Dynamic Management Views.

Session details:

Designing Dynamic SSRS Reports using an Analysis Services Data Source

Instructor: Devin Knight

Date/Time: 10/25/2012 11:00 AM

Creating Reporting Services reports that use Analysis Services as a data source can frustrating. You designed a cube so it can be more flexible for users but Reporting Services is static by nature. This session will walk you through building dynamic datasets that will allow users to change the fields represented in a SSRS report. No longer will Reporting Services be a static reporting tool because your users will have the flexibility to change report metadata dynamically using parameters and Dynamic Management Views (DMV).

24 Hours of PASS Recordings Available

If you missed any of the great 24 hour of PASS sessions from September you can now watch the recordings. 

http://www.sqlpass.org/UserLogin.aspx?returnurl=%2fLearningCenter%2fSessionRecordings%2f24HoursFall2012.aspx

Details on my session can be found below:

Session 01 – Choosing the Right Reporting Platform
Presenters: Brian Knight, Devin Knight
Download presentation slides (PDF)

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