Technical marketing: abstracts as key content units
“Because on-line search databases typically contain only abstracts, it is vital to write a complete but concise description of your work to entice potential readers into obtaining a copy of the full paper (…) in a business context, an “executive summary” is often the only piece of a report read by the people who matter. An abstract must be a fully self-contained, capsule description of the paper. It can’t assume (or attempt to provoke) the reader into flipping through looking for an explanation of what is meant by some vague statement. It must make sense all by itself.” – How to Write and Abstract by Philip Koopman, Carnegie Mellon University.
“These summaries, sometimes as much as a few hundred words but usually somewhat shorter, appear at the beginning of an article and are generally offered without cost to subscribers and nonsubscribers alike (…) some abstracts are supplemented by targeted key-words intended to increase visibility to search engines. The content of an abstract is extremely important because it can influence decisions.” – The Chicago Manual of Style by The University of Chicago Press.
Every paper, talk, video, brochure, catalog, contest and writings for webpages that I have involved in required the delivery of abstracts or brief descriptions. Interestingly enough, when looking at metrics, abstracts can end up being the unit of content that gets the higher readership as well as search traction. A publication’s “editorial style guide” sets guidelines on how to prepare, write and publicize information. However, many of them overlook the value and impact of short-length assets such as tag-lines, abstracts and brief descriptions and pitches.
We should be proud of having developed communication technologies that democratize content creation. We are making it even easier to publish, repurpose and cross-syndicate, as well as conducting all kinds of conversations on multiple online platforms. By having lowered barriers to communicate we are also experiencing some side effects. Information overload is an issue of concern, where many experience what I like to call “digital hoarding disorders.” High signal-to-noise ratios that clutter today’s channels can dilute and degrade our messages.
In this context, we are pressed for ways to conduct content curation and filtering for relevance, reputation and impact. Semantic technologies working with quality metadata and good abstracts become more and more valuable to marketers in high tech industries.
Good abstracts abstract out complexity and are not exercises on content compression. This is not about crafting collages of short but cryptic and even harder to understand sentences either. Good abstracts are more about synthesizing and clearly delivering the essence of one’s work to enable speed reading, grab the audience’s attention and generate interest in the item that they actually promote.
When discussing products and services, this becomes an exercise in targeted advertising, crisp storytelling and ease of consumption (reach and readability). In a way, writing abstracts can borrow “elevator pitch” techniques where the storyboard can be comprised of:
- A valid concern – a need and a gap that is worth addressing and that becomes an opportunity.
- A wow factor – a specific solution with compelling value, making a credible difference with a tangible and meaningful impact.
- A call-to-action – an immediate next logical step set on a “path-of-least-resistance” to move forward.
One other thought, we tend to think of an abstract as an asset that is delivered at the back end of a process… a marketing afterthought. However, abstracts can be written and deployed at the front end in ideation exercises and, therefore, in creative briefs. As an example, I have worked on innovation projects where I delivered abstracts to get the team thinking through what the project’s end goal would and should be. Basically, this helps with screening and testing concepts and, equally important, envisioning and defining success frameworks. This also aids to building consensus and setting a given course and speed for the project. This kind of abstracts also feed executive summaries.
Generally speaking, agility is driven by a continuous improvement mindset and is comprised by a series of both planned and unplanned iterative steps. Moreover, we can reap the benefits from unplanned serendipity not just as a happy casual accident, but as an eureka effect resulting from a workstyle as follows:
- Sketching – jotting down structures, concepts, key words and, if need to, also short sentences.
- Post-it clouds – these are collages using stickers that can be easily reorganized anytime, taking quick pictures of any groupings.
- Drafting – writing a strawman to get a first feel for what it takes to deliver the message in complete sentences.
- Prioritizing – re-writing things as needed for brevity, credibility, persuasiveness and impact.
- Rightsizing – keeping stuff down to what’s actually needed in terms of length (e.g. word count).
- Wordsmithing – seeking clarity, enabling speed reading and search engine optimization.
- Testing – proof reading and validating the abstract’s ease of readability and effectiveness.
- Cycling – iterating any of the above steps in any order to get needed improvements.
- Capping – saving oneself and the team from over-engineering the deliverable.