Want to get ahead in communications competitions? Then get your entry in on time and follow the rules.
Simple? Apparently not, says Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR, two-time Blue Ribbon Panelist for the International Association of Business Communicators’ Gold Quill competition and member of IABC’s Accreditation Board. After judging a couple of thousand contest entries and accreditation portfolios over the past two decades, including international Gold Quill submissions for seven years, Rich has come to the conclusion that many communicators don't know how to read ... or don't care what the Call for Entries actually says.
This article is the second in Rich's series, "You don't want me as your judge, UNLESS ..."
You've decided to enter a communications competition.
I'd be pretty surprised if you began your thought process with, "Wow! I can write a really great Statement of Objectives and Results, a terrific Work Plan. Now let's see if I can prepare a sample of my work to go along with it."
Actually, if you told me that, I simply wouldn't believe you.
But I imagine that you consider yourself a competent communicator or better. And that you have Work Samples galore that you believe are ready for the next Pulitzer or Gold Quill or PRISM or Silver Anvil.
Okay, you have a good work sample to start with.
But there's that other part of the entry, the part where you describe the planning process, where you show the judges that you don't only do pretty work, but that you know why you do pretty work. And there are deadlines, listed in plain sight on the Call for Entries.
These are crucial parts of most professional communications competitions, and they're places where many otherwise excellent communicators foul up.
My three best pieces of advice:
Let the Call for Entries be your friend.
Pay attention to detail.
Believe the deadlines.
Let me explain.
The people who design communications competitions go to a great deal of trouble designing their Call for Entries. A lot of blood, sweat, and gray matter, and many hours of committee meetings, go into preparing these things. Through the years, the rules and requirements get honed and refined and tweaked and improved.
They're very specific. They tell you exactly what the competition committee thinks is important, exactly what they expect of you.
And some fanatical, detail-obsessed, concrete sequential colleague of yours will hew to every niggling instruction, with astonishing accuracy.
Dancing To Your Own Rhythm
However, most business communicators are, for some reason, abstract randoms who like to follow their own drummer ... who decide, for no particular reason, that the deadlines and details outlined in the Call for Entries aren't necessary, or are unimportant.
Or they turn the work over to an assistant or secretary who has no vested interest in the outcome, and who may be dull, careless, or just overworked.
And we get results like this: One recent year, in Division 15 of the Gold Quill competition, we received 153 entries.
One was labeled for Division 11, but sent to me. Two came with checks that should have been mailed directly to IABC headquarters. Several arrived unsigned. The entry forms on several others were incomplete.
Eight submissions clearly were the work of someone other than the entrant: Did they really think we were going to give a writing award to someone whose role was limited to assigning and approving a subordinate's work?
One included a Work Sample that had nothing to do with the entry; I assume some other Division Coordinator received the Work Sample that was supposed to come to me, and vice versa.
Getting Dates Is Tough
One entry was produced and used in the wrong year. That happened again in the 2002 judging: The Work Plan described the company's 2000 annual report. The only problem was, the (soon-to-be-former?) secretary or clerk or coordinator or assistant submitted the 1999 annual report.
On other submissions, the Work Plans were too long -- the limits are clearly stated in the Call for Entries -- or tried to position one entry for two or more vastly different Gold Quill categories.
Of the 30 or so submission errors we encountered, all but two could have been avoided if the entrant had carefully followed the instructions in the Call for Entries.
Oh, No! I'm Late!
If you're going to pay $110 or $225 or $350 to enter a competition, are you sure you want to wait until the last minute, when you have to do everything in haste? Are you sure you want to put your entry's fate in the hands of someone who hasn't carefully read the entire Call for Entries?
On the 40 entries that arrive on deadline day, I'm not nearly as accommodating as I was on the ones that arrived a month -- or a week -- earlier.
"But," you say, "when I got around to preparing my entry, there wasn't time to devote all the attention I'd like."
Now Whose Fault Was That?
Gold Quill coordinators and those in other major competitions are told to be unsympathetic to all pleas of tolerance for late entries.
If you choose to use the day before contest entries are due as your starting deadline, you only will have proven your ability to match wits with the author on a bad day.
My own personal version of "my dog ate the homework" occurred in one year's Gold Quill competition when, on the penultimate day -- the day I had set aside on my client schedule to do nothing but complete my Gold Quill submission -- a heating system malfunction in the wee morning hours did its best to asphyxiate my wife and me.
Five repair people and many, many interrupted hours later, I finally got the entry completed ... too late for any of the standard overnight delivery services.
Yet, even that's not a good excuse, because I could have prepared the entry earlier!
The problem may not be your furnace, but if you wait until the last minute to prepare your entry, you may have an opportunity to learn more about alternative delivery services and the competition committee's attitude on deadline extensions than you ever wanted to know.
And even though I've been there, too, you won't have my sympathy. It was dumb for me to plan finishing the submission that close to the competition's deadline. That was a conscious decision, not "fate." It'll be equally dumb if you do it.
That's Not Long Enough
In Gold Quill and other major competitions, you -- and I -- have almost three months from initial notification until the entry is due. Why should either of us expect sympathy from a competition coordinator when we feebly voice the excuse, "I didn't have enough time"?
But let's say the work does arrive. On time. And you manage to properly complete the entry form.
Tune in next week to find out how judging decisions sometimes get made and what you can do to influence the outcome in your favor.
If you have questions, email me.