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Write a Better Abstract

A user group leader helps members craft submissions that sell.

By Jeff Erickson

March/April 2013

There are too many superstar DBAs no one has ever heard of, says Gwen Shapira of the Northern California Oracle Users Group (NOCOUG). Shapira wants to help those superstars get noticed.

“I’m sure everyone knows at least one DBA who is brilliant and amazing and can solve any problem but never talks about it,” she says. Shapira can list plenty of DBAs she has known and their accomplishments, including a guy who automated Oracle installations to the point where he could install 500 servers in a day. “That’s cool!” she says. “But he never talks about it, and no one will ever learn about it.”

Shapira is a consultant, Oracle ACE Director, and the director of conference programming at NOCOUG. She knows the ropes of presenting and has helped some of these superstars become speakers at user group events and conferences. But other equally talented DBAs have tried and failed to get speaking slots. Shapira wanted to understand why, so she turned to her substantial list of user group contacts.

Embracing the User Community

Shapira didn’t learn about Oracle user groups until she was a midlevel DBA. That’s when a Silicon Valley firm acquired her Israel-based company and moved her to California. Once in the US, she discovered that technologists hone and share their craft through user groups. “When I got here, everyone I worked with was talking about the user community,” Shapira recalls. “My boss was telling me I had to go to user group meetings because that’s how people get trained. In Israel we took official courses. But here technologists want the real information—not just what [a product] is supposed to do on paper, but what people are actually doing with it. That was very exciting for me.”

Shapira is an articulate speaker who is quick to laugh. It wasn’t long before she was into the user group experience: volunteering at NOCOUG, speaking at events, and writing a blog about her Oracle experience. “This was all pretty awesome,” she says. “I wanted to share it.”

Advice for Abstract Writers

In 2010 Shapira made it her mission to help more friends and colleagues start sharing their work at user group events. “Some of them pitched abstracts, got accepted to conferences, started speaking, and really love it,” she says. “But some of them came back to me a year later and told me that they had been submitting and submitting and no one was accepting their abstracts.” To help these would-be presenters, Shapira talked to abstract reviewers at large conferences and found solid advice.

First, be specific about what your presentation will include. “Many reviewers I spoke to said they often finish reading an abstract and still have no idea what it’s about,” says Shapira. “Are you going to give a lot of examples? Are you going to present a use case? Which specific subtopics interest you the most that you’re going to dive into?” she asks. “Being specific helps the people who select the abstract and the people who go to the presentation know what to expect.”

Second, include a “hook” in the first sentence or two of your abstract. “Without trying to be too clever, explain why this topic is cool,” says Shapira. “Tell them why they would really want to read this.”

Third, read a lot of abstracts before you write your own. “If you go to conferences and read a lot of abstracts, you develop an innate sense of what’s good and not so good,” she says. “If you don’t read many abstracts, you won’t know what an abstract should look like.”

Finally, be strategic. It’s a good idea to start by submitting to smaller user group meetings that don’t receive as many abstracts. “With less competition, you have a better chance of breaking into your first speaking slot,” she says.

Next Steps

 WATCH the interview

 READ Shapira’s blog

 SEE examples from abstracts



Photography by Joseph Chan, Unsplash