Abstract thinking: How presenting your ideas on the world stage could unlock your career

Three actuaries share their advice, tips, and reasons why everyone should consider submitting an abstract to speak at the once in a lifetime opportunity: ICA 2023.

The act of sitting down to write an abstract for the first time can be a little difficult. First, you need a premise, you need to research, and then test your findings. Then you need to present them to an audience – which requires a whole new set of skills.

To unlock the secrets of writing an effective abstract, we sat down with three experienced actuaries. All our guests have spoken at major industry speaking events with countless hours of abstract writing and presenting experience between them.

Here we ask all the questions many might be afraid to ask: how do I write an abstract? What are the best approaches? What should I talk about? How do I approach public speaking?

Our actuaries reveal how writing an abstract for ICA2023 isn’t just for academics. It’s an opportunity to hear from many voices across the industry.

Call for Abstracts close 31 March 2022. Why not share your original work, ideas, and insights with your actuarial colleagues?

Our actuaries

Brnic Van Wyk is the Head of Asset/Liability Management at QSuper in Queensland and is no stranger to presenting his ideas to audiences. He has presented at the Congress of Actuaries in Washington, DC in 2014 and in Berlin, Germany in 2018. He also presents at the International Actuarial Association’s annual colloquiums where he draws from his years of experience in the superannuation, pension, and social security industry.

Mengyi Xu is an Assistant Professor at Purdue University in the US. Before joining Purdue, Mengyi completed her undergrad and PhD at UNSW in Australia. After graduating, Mengyi completed her post-doctorate at the Centre of Excellence in Population Aging Research (CEPAR). Mengyi has presented findings across numerous conferences, including ICA2018 in Berlin, Germany.

Andrés Villegas is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW in Australia. He is also an Associate Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) where he was previously a Research Fellow. Presenting at conferences is a big part of his job, where he frequently speaks at academic and professional conferences around the world including ICA2018 in Berlin, Germany.

(L-R): Brnic Van Wyk, Mengyi Xu and Andrés Villegas

Actuaries Institute: Thanks for having a chat with us. To start, tell us what are some of the key things in approaching abstract writing. What’s something that you always have to keep in mind?

Brnic: I would say be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve. There’s no point just writing an abstract about a huge amount of activity you’re undertaking. First, there’s got to be a call to authority. Take the superannuation industry at the moment. There’s draft legislation around a retirement income covenant, there’s the recently released ‘Your Future, Your Super’ performance tests, there’s legislation. So, in that example, there’s a call to authority to analyse things and to research things. So that immediately gets people’s attention.

The second point is what I would call impenetrable logic. Really making sure the numbers add up, the logic is correct, the hypothesis is appropriately defined. And then finally, which we often miss is external validation. If you want to get anything done, often the question is “what are other people doing? Did you test this? Did you get assurance? Did you get it audited?” There’s always this need for this external validation.

Mengyi: Keep it short and nice. For a conference abstract, I would ask why you want to do it and why is it important that you do it. I see that people do not always put the findings or results in the abstract submitted to the conference because it’s most likely a work in progress, a piece of a project, or people don’t necessarily have findings when they submit this abstract.

Actuaries Institute: How do you make your abstract stand out?

Mengyi: From my experience, there are a few ways of doing it. One is choosing a topic that itself is interesting. For example, recently I attended a seminar about how to price for Uber. Because a lot of us have exposure to Uber, the topic itself is naturally interesting. The techniques and the theories behind it are not really aligned to my research interests but I naturally feel like attending that seminar.

Andrés: It typically depends on the conference. Usually, I have a piece of work that I have already carried out and then I will try to summarise it in 200, 300 words so that I can communicate what I want to present. But where we have a conference that is in 2023, I think of ideas that I have in my pipeline and try to put an abstract together that I can develop over the next year so that I can meet the deadline for the paper submission, which in this case, I think it’s early 2023. I always think of, “Okay. What is a nice idea I have that I want to invest some of my time on?” but also interesting for the audience and that I can develop within a year.

Actuaries Institute: How do you approach that process of submitting an abstract?

Brnic: The very act of submitting an abstract then creates the impetus for me to do the work. Because there’s such a long lead time and you want your work to be sort of fairly recent and fresh. If I had to put in an abstract for 2023 in March 2022, I’d think long and hard about the problem I’m trying to solve. Be very simple and succinct about it, which means it doesn’t constrain my work, but it definitely creates the impetus to get it done.

Andrés: Even if it’s on an area that is common and that everyone might be looking at, then it’s always important to try to show what’s new about what you’re trying to present and how it fits with what other people have done or are doing. You need to show that this is the unique thing that makes your work relevant or of interest to others. This could be coming from different angles. It could be that this is of interest to others and it’s new because maybe it’s a new technique or it’s looking at a new topic. Or it could also be because it’s looking at a new dataset that other people haven’t looked at, or because your findings may challenge what others might think.

Actuaries Institute: What advice do you have for people when they get to that stage, where they have to present and talk to a large crowd potentially?

Mengyi: I guess it depends on their experience. If someone is not used to this process, I would say do more preparation, read the guidelines on the presentation. I think the organising committee would usually publish the guidelines on presentations. For example, they will provide templates and they will tell you how long the presentation needs to be. Preparation is the key with the guidelines. And if you feel really, really nervous, do a couple of rehearsals before coming into the room or even get some feedback from your colleagues or advisors. They would all help.

Andrés: The first time you do it can seem daunting. The way I try to prepare for these things is by seeing other people I like and what they do in their presentations. I always think of what the audience is going to be, not making very strong assumptions about what people really know, but without overdoing it. We are all actuaries, so we can assume that there is some basic knowledge, but not over-assuming. And rather emphasising every small detail of what you’ve done it’s emphasizing the big picture. Ask yourself why this is important and what is new from what you’ve done and what you can take away from the work that you are presenting.

 “If nothing else, just the personal challenge of getting up and just standing in front of people, knowing you’re just a normal person just like every one of them, has been a little bit of a personal challenge and something that I’ve got more used to now.”

Brnic: Personally, I was probably scared of two things a long time ago. And one was heights, and one was public speaking. We get extremely nervous but just challenging yourself personally. If nothing else, just the personal challenge of getting up and just standing in front of people, knowing you’re just a normal person just like every one of them, has been a little bit of a personal challenge and something that I’ve got more used to now. But that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous. Every time I get on stage, you got to blow out all the air that got stuck in your lungs. I still get nervous, but I do challenge myself. The vertigo hasn’t gone away though. I’m still stuck with that one.

Actuaries Institute: Speaking is not something that comes naturally and it’s not a strength that everyone has. But would you agree that taking advantage of this opportunity is a good thing for someone’s career as an actuary?

Brnic: Absolutely. It’s a key component. I mean, no one person is an island. And as I said, we’re all trying to solve the same problem. When you’re faced with real world problems, this gives you the opportunity to take little snippets from everywhere and solve your own problem. Because every one of us may have a very unique problem, but we can apply a range of standardised solutions to that or standard well researched solutions.
Getting out and about has definitely raised my personal profile. It’s allowed me to meet people, create networks, and all of that is information and content that I can feed back into my day job.

Mengyi: Sure, absolutely. Because this is such a big stage and it’s not only academics who would attend this conference, but also a lot of professional actuaries who will attend this conference. Career-wise, I’m still in a very junior position, so from my perspective, especially presenting your research in front of a potentially big audience and make your research known to someone who are more senior, I think is definitely helpful. Essentially, it’s a big networking opportunity. Also, these days a lot of work is done collaboratively. Maybe you are good at something, maybe writing or speaking, then potentially you can split the role of doing different tasks. It’s just such a big venue that you don’t want to miss it. It’s the Olympics for actuaries! Submitting an abstract is essential to grasp that opportunity.

Andrés: I think sharing ideas is what makes a community. This is the avenue where you can get people from all over the world together and start these conversations. This is how you can perhaps increase your knowledge on this specific topic, but also get other people’s views on what you’re doing. Whenever I present at conferences, it’s very common that I get comments afterwards. When I hear new things that I hadn’t thought of, or hear new perspectives, that always enriches my work as an academic.

Actuaries Institute: Thanks again for all the advice! Did you have anything else you wanted to add?

Mengyi: Submitting an abstract is just a stepping-stone to present at a conference. Presenting at a conference is a good way to let peers know what I’m doing and to make an appearance in front of more senior people and also to get some feedback. Which is important before you eventually submit your article to a journal.

Brnic: Public speaking is not for everyone. And not everyone has to follow that route in order to get ahead or progress in their career. I think there are definitely areas where formal report writing carries much more weight than public speaking.

But I would say as you progress in your career you will naturally be more and more of a manager and a leader and you would be addressing more people literally in various forums, be that a team meeting or a town hall. The natural progression of getting older and getting more senior in your company means there are going to be times when you have to get up and speak.

Andrés: I often do presentations beforehand to my wife, who is a designer and an artist, so nothing to do with actuarial science, and I get quite good feedback. If she can understand it and she can tell me maybe this is not as clear, then I can incorporate these things to my presentation. It’s a good idea to present it to friends and family, even if they’re not in the actuarial profession.

ICA2023 kicks off 28 May – 1 June 2023. Learn more about this exciting experience.


CPD: Actuaries Institute Members can claim two CPD points for every hour of reading articles on Actuaries Digital.