To the initiated, the word “abstract” instantly denotes a short summary of completed research. It implies a description of the general questions asked by the study, a claim about how best to resolve them, and, finally, the outcome of doing so. Abstracts appear in a variety of forms. They describe the plot of books; preview films; headline journal articles; frame grant proposals; and explain what new products do. They tell the audience what to expect. Notice that the important ingredient is always the same. The abstract is a teaser – it should make the reader instantly desire to know more.
ABSTRACT (an adjective): thought apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances. Expressing a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance. Difficult to understand; abstruse.
Consider the conference abstract. In comparison to the other times the abstract is used, the conference abstract appears somewhat unglamorous. On the one hand, it is unlikely that you’ll get a job because you wrote a good one. On the other hand, the ability to write a good abstract likely means that you are developing professionally and are self-aware enough to know that other people do not instantly understand why they should care about your questions, admire your brilliance, or buy what you are selling. Write without awareness of this issue, and it is likely that fewer people will turn up for your lecture. It really is simple: your audience needs to know why they should come.
Don’t misunderstand this observation. While it is important to make people want to know more about your accomplishments, it is also foolhardy to offer more than you can deliver. The art of good abstract writing is almost certainly in selling your findings and their importance. But pigs don’t have wings; don’t promise what you cannot deliver. As long, however, as you explain why your findings are important and why people should care, you are probably on safe ground. In that case, the worst thing that will happen during your conference presentation is that someone will ask you a question that shows how you have inferred too much and thus have more to do.
If, however, you have promised the moon, then one of the following scenarios will likely unfold: (1) People will be disappointed and ask no questions. (2) People will be disappointed and ask lots of questions, but after your presentation and behind your back. (3) And worse, you will say something like “I’m not actually sure why my abstract says that I will do ‘x’, because actually my paper will be about ‘y’.” Or, (4) you will fake it. You will pretend that ‘x’ is ‘y.’ Some audience members, likely those who matter most to your professional success, will know that you did tried to make ‘x’ seem like ‘y’ and will be annoyed. Others will not know and will feel confused, alienated, and bored. Just because there are nice people who will come up afterwards and say “good job” doesn’t mean that you actually did a “good job.”