There are ways to influence a judge without resorting to bribery. Just make his job easier, says Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR.
Rich ought to know. He has judged more than two thousand contest entries and accreditation portfolios since the 1970s. He has twice served on the International Association of Business Communicators' Blue Ribbon Panel, the top-level judging for the Association's prestigious Gold Quill competition, and has done five terms as a Gold Quill Division Coordinator. Presently, he is completing his second tour on IABC's Accreditation Board. He says there are a lot of similarities between accreditation portfolios and contest entries.
If you would put yourself into the place of the contest judge, Rich says, you'd prepare your entries differently. This article is the third in his series, "You don't want me as your judge, UNLESS ..."
It has to be in the water ... or the coffee ... or the building's ventilation system.
Surely it can't be that the bulk of my colleagues have "gone stupid" once they begin their professional careers.
Remember back in elementary school? When Miss Thistlebottom said, "Follow the instructions"?
Or when you had trouble baking a cake or putting a model airplane together, and Mom or Dad said the same thing? Or perhaps it was that trick quiz in Econ 101, with the opening line that said, "Read all the questions before beginning the exam." And the last question wasn't a question at all, but a gotcha from the professor that tested whether you were able to follow instructions: "Only those students who sign their name at the top of the page and turn in an otherwise blank exam will receive a passing grade."
Well, let me tell you, communications competitions and writing contests and accreditation portfolios are just about that simple. Except that, unlike in Econ 101, there are no tricks.
Oh, you have to do quality work, sure.
And I suspect you believe you've done that, or you wouldn't be contemplating entering a competition in the first place.
You prepare your submission documents and Work Plan and Work Sample, you get everything in on time, and you sit back and wonder what really happens.
Is it a good, fair process, or is judging akin to watching sausage being made? Is all lost if you get a judge like me?
Now I've Got What You've Got, And You Gave It to Me
When I sit down to judge something other than Gold Quill, often the only information I've received, along with far too many entries to carefully review in the time that seemed so free two months earlier when I agreed to help out, is -- you guessed it! -- the Call for Entries. No instructions, no guidelines, no assistance of any kind. Just a due date and a huge stack of entries in unmanageable three-inch binders.
(Gold Quill and Silver Anvil judges typically have better training and information, and more time available. But that's not the case in many competitions.)
Now I have what you had. And little more.
Often, client deadlines and an overworked judging coordinator have conspired, and it is the day before the results are due, and I have only glanced at a few of the entries and straightened the stack a couple of times.
So when I'm faced with an intimidating pile of entries the evening before the deadline, and I know I'm going to still be at this at 3:00 a.m., with bleary eyes and my third pot of coffee, I'm just looking for ways to winnow down the pile.
And you know what? YOU make it easy for me.
I Want To Go To Bed
If I'm really tired, I'll look at the entry form, to see if you've managed to do something to disqualify yourself. If you have: Reprieve! One fewer entry to read, and it's your fault, not mine!
But, frankly, that Call for Entries is so specific, it's almost impossible to foul up. Or it should be ... if you follow it.
So, if the entry seems to qualify, I begin judging. On the first pass, I don't pay much attention to the quality of the Work Sample. Experience proves that most are pretty good.
I just look at your Work Plans and review the Call for Entries, and the pile of "possibles" quickly becomes manageable. Or tiny.
Other experienced judges do the same. (Indeed, I have one friend and colleague who takes this one step further: She only looks at the project objectives. If they aren't well-written, she immediately puts the entry into the "no" pile. Doesn't even look at the entry if the objectives aren't satisfactory.)
Try Bill Clinton's Approach
Knowing this can help you increase your chances of doing well. The trick? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "It's the Work Plan, stupid!" Pay attention to the instructions, write a good Work Plan, and do what you can to make the judge's job a bit easier.
When the instructions list a series of points you are to make or questions to answer in the Work Plan, use them as section headings, so judges can find them easily. Set out project objectives in bullet points.
If you will simply make your points or answer the questions -- in detail -- in the order they are requested, you will be far, far ahead of most of the other entrants. This is NOT the time to be creative; it is the time to HELP the judge, to PROVE that you did everything asked of you.
Don't give the judge a chance to think, "Was that included?" "Did he answer this question? Where?" If the information is presented in the order asked, with bold-faced highlights and bullet points, even a sleepy or overtaxed judge won't miss it.
Now You Show Me Yours
Future articles will help you learn how -- and why -- to write evaluable objectives, and how to include information on measurement and evaluation in your competition entries. If you have questions, email me.
If the Call for Entries asks you to tell us how the project was developed or planned, tell us! If it wants to know who the intended audience was, or what the budget was, or what your role in the project was, answer the question!
As many entries as I have judged, I continue to be amazed by the number that come through with absolutely NO answers to questions posed in the Call for Entries.
And maybe -- just maybe -- you'll get a judge who didn't read the instructions any more closely than you did.
But don't count on it!