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You, Inc.

Bringing the Mountain to Mohammed

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

It's a dilemma. You work for yourself and you're busy as the dickens and you don't have time to get everything done. You're open to ideas, you want to improve your skills, you want to enhance your marketability, but these things take those two precious commodities, time and money. The monthly meetings of your local professional association fall at inconvenient times or are in the wrong part of town or, perhaps, haven't covered anything of interest for the past seven months. The regional or national or international meetings of PRSA or IABC or NSPRA or NAMA or STC would be great, but they're priced for people with corporate budgets, not for you. Big-deal seminars by Ragan and Joe Williams and Effective Communications Group would be even more focused, but they're costlier still. And that time thing, always the time thing. You can't afford the time away from the office, away from the clients, away from the work that contributes to your revenue stream, away from the friendly confines of your favorite local CornerBar. Time and money, time and money. What do you do? Well, quit using the same old paradigms, that's what. Change your thinking. Let the Other Guy Buy Instead of going somewhere distant and spending money and travel time to hear someone's best ideas, reverse the process. Have it all come to you. Volunteer to judge in communications competitions. That's right, judge competitions. Don't enter, judge! Hell, go out of your way to judge communications competitions. If you have to, volunteer to serve as your organization's judging coordinator. No, I haven't been sampling the schnapps. I'm serious. I've judged a couple of thousand of entries in more than a hundred competitions. I can't possibly look at other people's best work without coming away with valuable ideas and approaches that I hadn't thought of previously. Knowledge I can put to use today, or put away until tomorrow, but information and approaches and ideas that I'll be able to apply sometime. You see, I'm an independent practitioner who is a sucker for professional associations. I find -- and I know this sounds a little like the Chamber of Commerce here, but it has the advantage of being true -- that the more I contribute, the more I gain. I've gotten some of my best ideas from looking at other people's best ideas. And I use these ideas again and again, in my own practice. They're like a cheap date, quick and easy ways to keep up and look smart and offer my clients more than they bargained for. But time. Time, time, time … you don't have time. Don't be ridiculous. If you really want to improve your skills, your knowledge, your expertise, it would be hard to find a faster, easier, less expensive, more convenient way than through judging. Here's why. No one takes the time and spends the money to enter a competition unless they believe their work product is pretty good. It's something they're proud of, something they've labored over or, maybe, paid some agency big bucks to prepare. The stuff entered into communications competitions typically ranges from above average to superb, occasionally world-class. And you get to look at it and think about it and fondle it for free. But better than that, any competition worth its salt requires a work plan, a statement of objectives and results, an entry document that details the thinking that went into the project. Every Now and Then, There's a Pony Frankly, in most communications competitions, the quality of the work plans varies widely. Some of them are pretty piss-poor, because they haven't taken my seminar on how to do them right. But when you find a really good one, or an otherwise so-so submission that contains a couple of killer ideas, it's like a good hit of Jack. Smooth. If you're paying attention, it's pretty hard to look at what other people think is their best work without learning something. They're offering you their best ideas and the complete rationale of why they think those ideas are so great. In the recent IABC Gold Quill competition, for instance, the entrants were required to tell the judges:

  • The need or opportunity the entry addressed and how it affected the entrant's organization.

  • The intended audience and the characteristics of their primary audience (such as demographics and psychographics) that were factors in developing the solution.

  • The communication goals and measurable objectives of the project and how they related to the strategic objectives or business strategies of the organization.

  • The solution that was developed and why, summarizing the project, program, or campaign and describing the rationale or creative solution for the approach chosen.

  • Any challenges that were encountered; how the project was implemented, including budget, time, technical equipment, and other resources.

  • Measurement or evaluation of outcomes, specifying how the project's success in meeting its objectives was measured. Measurements had to be linked to the objectives and the entry had to show whether behavior or attitudes were changed as a result of the program.

Now think about it. Wake Me Up When We're Done You'd have to be pretty brain-dead to read 7 or 12 or 20 of these work plans and not learn something valuable, something you could apply on your next project. With almost every entry, one of two things will have happened: You'll have gained new knowledge, new information, or a new approach, or you'll think, "Hell! I have better ideas than this guy!" and walk away more confident in your own abilities. Either way, it was time well spent. When you judge others' work, you're not just hearing the ideas of one presenter, as you would at a workshop. You're reading the ideas, the thought process, the justification, the logic -- the basis and foundation -- of several entire plans from experienced colleagues spread across a variety of industries and circumstances. Read them closely, track the entrant's logic and think along with him, and you'll come away with ideas and insights and perspectives you never had before. So what if you didn't obtain the knowledge in the "traditional" way, by spending hundreds or thousands of dollars and several days of your already-overcommitted time. Just because it was easy to come by, doesn't make the information any less valid or valuable. If you say you can't learn anything from such materials, I say you've just never thought about it in the right way. I say you aren't trying.

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