December 11, 2018

Visual Abstracts at the Women in Surgery Leadership Development Conference

Learn more about the process of creating visual abstracts at a conference.

The Michigan Promise Blog
Preparing for Live Visual Abstracting Template by Chelsea Harris

Understanding Live Visual Abstracts at MWSC

Social media has become an integral part many surgeons’ conference experiences. Attendees routinely tweet out everything from selfies to slides, which in turn serves to raise the profile of the conference, disseminate ideas, and foster online discussion. However, critiques of current engagement practices often charge that many of the posts are of questionable value: the visuals are can be low-quality or the academic content limited. In this context, Live Visual Abstracting, that is the process of creating a visual abstract in real time a presenter is speaking, offers a unique opportunity to mine leverage the best aspects of social media while avoiding the pitfalls. Specifically, Live Visual Abstracts allow conference organizers to maintain a cohesive aesthetic, consistent branding, and produce high-quality visuals that not only promote dissemination with increase the potential conference material will be reused in the future, creating long term reach. Furthermore, it raises the profile of invited speakers by creating a much wider audience, and may support recruitment of high-profile presenter in the future.

The potential of Live Visual Abstracts was on full display at the Michigan Women’s Surgical Collaborative Conference’s annual meeting Building Your Best Self. Although the conference lasted just two days and included a fairly modest 170 participants, the Live Visual Abstracts generated over 120,000 impressions. Furthermore, Live Visual Abstracts from last year’s meeting still garner occasional retweets. So, given such potential to elevate, how can future conference organizers and participants engage? Below are some principles I have developed to guide the process. (A similar outline is available in the Visual Abstract Primer.)

Pre-Conference: Understanding the Context

Currently, there are no regulations regarding who can and should make Visual Abstracts. However, if the overarching goal is to produce succinct, visually appealing messages, working with the conference organizers is key. At a small meeting, such as the MWSC, you may be able to work directly with the leaders, but at larger national meetings you may need to join the conference committee to work within appropriate regulations. Deciding to make your own Live Visual Abstract may not engender a lot of enthusiasm if you are seen to be encroaching on someone else’s domain or if you are producing duplicate work. This is particularly important if you plan on using conference iconography (society logos, etc.) as this may give the false impression that you are associated with an organization in an official capacity.

Pre-Conference: Setting Yourself Up for Success

One of the key differences between live and standard visual abstracts is the timeframe is much shorter. For maximal impact, the time between the conference session and the abstract dissemination should be very short. Thus, abstractors should aim to have a nearly complete product by the time each session ends. There are several strategies to facilitate this:

  • Make templates ahead of time: decide on color schemes, enter in session title, conferences logos, and authors names/credentials prior to the session. The fast pace potentiates small mistakes like typos, so pre-filling whatever information you have a priori will give you more time to proofread your final product.
  • Have multiple candidate templates per talk. For example, if you are planning on making an LVA for a panel, have several pre-filled options. You can consider making templates with all the authors on a single slide, individual slides for each author, or some combination. Similarly, you can prepare templates that emphasize quotations or include a range in panel number. At some point fairly early on you will have to make a judgement call regarding how much space you want to give each speaker, but being able to expand or condense your template quickly is key.
  • Customize your icon color scheme: Both Powerpoint and subscription icon services allow you to make customized colors, so if you plan on using a non-standard palate, take a few minutes to save those in ahead of time. The eyedropper function which is available in newer version of Powerpoint is a great tool as it allows you to match your colors to conference logos exactly, and can ensure your text matches as well.

Adjusting Your Templates

  • Conferences are inherently different than research papers. They are often more fluid, include multiple presentations in quick succession, and may include opinion as well as references. To accommodate these nuances, abstractors may want to adjust their templates.
  • Expand your template to include more findings: instead of the increasingly common 3-panels structure seen in standard visual abstracts, consider a layout that can accommodate 4-8 findings. Changing slide size in Powerpoint from a standard 4:3 ratio to a widescreen 16:19 can provide more space. As always, abstractors must balance thoroughness with readability, so you should be judicious in what you ultimately include.
  • Anchor to a quotation: speakers often frame their talks with pithy quotations so using these as a starting point is a great way to attract attention. If the quotation is glib or somewhat controversial, making sure to attribute it to the original source is also a good strategy to ensure you are not putting words in the speakers’ mouth.
  • Employ non-linear formats: unlike scientific papers which are formulaic, conferences follow a looser format so you can be creative in how you display your information. Test out new formats beforehand with your colleagues to weed out ones that are boring or too busy.
  • When to call it: without fail there will be more content than you can fit in your abstract (beware the excessively busy slide) so once you have filled all available slots its okay to stop. Visual Abstracts are not intended to be all-encompassing documents. If you have an opportunity to check with speakers ahead of time to verify what points they most want to communicate that can help you choose, otherwise just use your discretion.
Preparing for Live Visual Abstracting Template by Chelsea Harris
Preparing for Live Visual Abstracting

Preparing for Live Visual Abstracting

  • Pre-filled Title, Key points, Author name & credentials, Conference logos, Abstractor attribution
  • High Panel Count, rapidly collapsible 
  • Widescreen 16:9 ratio
  • Pre-set Icon color scheme
Quote-based visual abstract templates by Chelsea Harris, MD
Quotation-Anchored Formats
Non-linear visual abstract templates by Chelsea Harris, MD
Non-linear Formats

Good to Great: Perfecting your Visuals  

With more and more Visual Abstracts circulating, the novelty has decline somewhat, so the visual appeal of the product matters more. Many of the design principles for standard visuals abstracts still apply in this setting (you can read more in the visual abstract primer) but here are a few key points:

  • Be consistent: try to employ uniform icons. In addition to color scheme, the weight of the lines, sharpness of edges and style of the icons you use will determine how professional your final product appears. I primarily use as an icon bank, but several other also exist.
  • Prioritize the conclusion, not the methods: you want the take home points to stick in people’s mind, so try to choose icons that represent those themes. For example, if you performed a survey about autonomy, choose an icon for autonomy rather than a survey. This can be difficult if the topic is abstract, but will improve the end product.
  • Equity in Imagery: Put some thought into who and how you choose to represent people. Unfortunately, many of the image banks default to male icons (when I searched for ‘professor’ in thenounproject there were more icons of owls than women) which limits how diverse your options are. I try to overcome this by adding hair or changing clothing, but this too has its pitfalls as only certain kinds of hair are represented, and many women don’t identify with stereotypically feminine representation. In the live setting where time is limited, editing icons is even more challenging.

Final Checks

Time pressure will inevitably make Live Visual Abstracts error prone, so make sure you review your draft in full screen and ideally enlist a second reviewer before sending out the final product.. Pay special attention to authors’ names and credentials as these are more important than small typos.

Areas of Ongoing Debate

If there is no pre-existing plan for LVA at a session I’m attending can I try my hand at it?

The short answer is no one can stop you so yes, but there are several things to keep in mind. First, if you haven’t practiced with standard visual abstracts, this is probably not a great first step. As noted earlier, creating quality visual abstracts is an iterative process, and there is not much time to edit in the live setting. In addition, if you are attending a session given by a paid consultant, you should be cognizant of whether broad dissemination of the key points will undermine their business model, or if the information is proprietary.

How can we ensure the message is correct?

This is probably the biggest controversy in LVA. To date, most previous abstracting has had some quality control built in either through a dedicated review process at the journal promoting the VA, or because the author created their own and could therefore control the message. Similarly, as live tweeting often includes pictures of slides, the author still retains primary control and citations are displayed prominently to give context and validity. Because conference speakers are often moving on to the next session quickly, it may be difficult to obtain permission or get them to review the live visual abstract in a timely manner. We recommend several strategies to address this tension. First, a prior clear agreement with conference organizers about who will be performing LVA, informing speakers of its occurrence, and potential review is best. In the absence of existing structures, approaching the moderator prior to the session’s start to inquire if they would be willing to spot check your work is another viable approach. Finally, if you don’t have access to any of these things, asking a fellow attendee to review and confirm your draft may also work.

What happens if I tweet out a LVA and realize there is an error?

Time and severity are the two biggest considerations here. If you notice immediately and it has not been widely shared, delete your tweet, correct the abstract and try again. If you noticed a typo after the abstract has been widely shared, acknowledge your mistake repost a corrected version but leave the original—the message is likely more important than spelling. If you make a message error—meaning you mispresent the content—we  recommend working with the original speaker to make corrections. This may entail deleting the original tweet, issuing a retraction, or other remedial efforts. This ties back in to the creative control issue: because visual abstracts reach wide audiences, retracting the message is impossible. Ultimately, having established LVA practices are ideal.

What should I do if someone has made a visual abstract that I don’t like or misrepresents my work?

Contacting the abstractor is a good first start. Misrepresenting your work is obviously a more serious transgression than creating a product that is simply unattractive, but working together to correct the mistake will be most successful.  There may be little you can do to reign in spread once its public, but you can issue corrections. As is often the case in medicine, prevention is probably most helpful—designating someone to create your abstract and announcing this or preparing yours ahead of time will avoid this issue altogether.

How can I use the Visual Abstract to drive traffic to the relevant journal articles?

The best way is to leverage a friend. Depending on the pace of the conference you may not have time to thoroughly reply to or augment your initial tweet. Therefore, having a second person who can link article to the abstract or tie in other information is very useful.


Article by Chelsea Harris, MD (Twitter: @CAHarrisMD)

Chelsea Harris

Chelsea Harris, MD

General Surgery Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center
Past Research Fellow, University of Michigan

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