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Strike a Winning Chord

Secret to Winning in Bronze Quill:
How to prepare a sound work plan

FAQs that reveal tips 'n tricks to entering—and winning— Bronze Quill, Silver Quill, Gold Quill and other communications competitions.

by Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR
Chief Curmudgeon

Rich Barger has served six terms on IABC's Blue Ribbon Panel for Gold Quill, the organization's prestigious international communications competition. He also has completed five stints as a Gold Quill Division Coordinator and has evaluated nearly three thousand communications competition entries and accreditation portfolios through the years.

He's seen the good and the bad of these submissions, and he has some strong opinions on the subject of entering competitions. If you're thinking about entering Bronze Quill or a similar competition and want to know the mistakes to avoid and the tricks that will help you stand a better chance of coming out a winner, read on.

Q: First things first. What's your single best tip?
RBB: The Work Plan probably is more important than the work samples. We all do pretty good work, or we wouldn't be considering entering a competition. So what differentiates one good entry from another? The Work Plan. It is 50 percent of your Bronze Quill score; your "pretty" work does not stand on its own. If 50 percent of your score is going to come from the Work Plan - which shows your thought process, how much you understand about what you did, why you did it, and the degree to which you succeeded - you'd be well-advised to devote a lot of attention to it.

Q: What are the biggest Work Plan weaknesses?
RBB: The sections on Objectives and Evaluation. Communications objectives should be action-oriented, supporting the objectives of the organization and designed to change or reinforce attitudes, actions, beliefs, behaviors and opinions in measurable ways; they always should have a built-in, quantifiable outcome with some internal mechanism for measuring success. Once you've formulated objectives properly, you'll know what constitutes success. Best practice: Aim to improve business results, and then measure to see if you hit your target.

Sorry, but "publishing a newsletter" or "holding an event" are not objectives. They are tactics to help your business achieve or accomplish something. What is that "something"? IABC competitions want to know what business result - what outcome - you achieved, not what outputs you used to get you there. At least not in the section on Objectives.

Too often, judges see otherwise fine work, but with no attempt to measure success. The Bronze Quill competition is pretty specific about this: "What indicators did you use to measure each specific objective?" If you have mushy objectives, then any outcome might be labeled a success - but that's clearly not the award-quality, best-practice work of a top-notch communicator. If you've written good objectives, you'll know how to determine whether you've achieved success and, if not, why not. And you'll be right in line with the other best-practice communicators who included an evaluation mechanism in their project.

Q: But I had no budget for evaluation; the boss wouldn't let me do it.
RBB: Oh, give me a break. Sometimes, if objectives are constructed properly, achievement of success is self-evident. And while quantitative evaluation is best, just because you couldn't come up with the resources doesn't mean you have to give up on all evaluation efforts.

Not every evaluation has to be a multivariate, Chi-square, triple-regression, Beta-curve, sixth Sigma monstrosity with a 99.4 percent accuracy rating and a 0.0004 chance of a Type II error with a half twist in the pike position. There is such a thing as qualitative evaluation. Formal research is best, but informal evaluation is far better than no measurement at all.

Obviously, qualitative and informal methods don't have the statistical validity and projectability that a good, quantitative measure might have, but they're far better than nothing - so long as you recognize their limitations, and show the judges that you understand the difference. And some informal methods might cost nothing. In most competitions, good informal evaluation will not only be acceptable, it will rank you ahead of all the entrants who didn't include any. It just may be enough to separate you from the crowd.

Mark Weiner, Chief Executive Officer of Delahaye Medialink, makes the excellent point that, "without objective third-party measurement, [you] may never know the extent of [your] accomplishments, or how to uncover opportunities for improvement. Research does, on rare occasion, validate failure. And sometimes this can be painful. But certainly nothing good comes from not taking the risk of learning the truth."

If you're good at what you do, don't be afraid to have your work evaluated. It can only make you better. As we fight for corporate resources, having quantifiable proof of our success in helping the organization meet its goals increases our effectiveness, as well as our standing and respect along mahogany row. Once you've decided to incorporate best practices into your everyday work, your outcomes will improve and your competition entries will all but write themselves.

Q: What's the most frequent mistake entrants make?
RBB: Entrants don't pay attention to simple details. They don't follow the instructions, adhere to the deadlines, answer every question, provide required materials ... the list goes on and on.

The people who design communications competitions go to a great deal of trouble developing 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.

While there are no "magic tricks" to successfully entering competitions, some fanatical, detail-obsessed, concrete-sequential colleague of yours will hew to every niggling instruction with astonishing accuracy ... so you certainly won't help yourself any if you make up your own entry procedures. For some reason, many business communicators are 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.

Instead, let the Call for Entries be your friend. Pay attention to detail. Believe the deadlines.

If the requirements are spelled out in the Call for Entries, this judge figures you knew what you were doing when you submitted what you submitted. If your Work Plan is incomplete or sloppy or thrown together, I take the position that you had the same chance as the person who followed the instructions. And that you were willing to take the consequences. Most other experienced judges take a similar approach.

This ain' t Burger King; you can't Have It Your Way.

Q: Okay, judge, tell me something I won't learn anywhere else.
RBB: That's easy: Help the judge.

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-ring binders.

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.

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. 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 experienced 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. She doesn't even look at the entry if the objectives aren't satisfactory. You might want to keep this in mind when you construct project objectives ...)

Once I'm reading your entry, you're far better off if you've done what you can to make my 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. It will stand out, if he's comparing your entry with one submitted by someone else.

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!

Seem obvious? Apparently not. 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.

How do you think their scores compare with those of entrants who did what was asked of them?

Q: In an ideal world, I do a communications plan before starting a project. However, my world is rarely ideal. I often have the elements in mind as I do the work - I just didn't write them down. Or maybe I've lost some of the materials. How can I enter that project in Bronze Quill?
RBB: I contend that most seasoned practitioners - especially Accredited Business Communicators - actually do plan, at least in their heads. While it is best to begin with a written plan, I agree that doesn't happen very often. However, it is the rare project that begins without planning.
If you planned, you certainly can set the planning process, the thought process, down on paper in the competition's Work Plan or Statement of Objectives and Results. And that's what competitions want.

Of course, I'm not advocating ghost writing. No ethical communicator should stand for that. But you certainly can enter this type of project in a competition. You're not developing the plan after the project is done, you're just writing down the responses to the contest organizer's questions at that point. The plan already was formulated.

I don't recall ever seeing a requirement that the submission include an original, time-stamped planning document that precedes the initiation of the project. If you supply me what the Call for Entries asks for in a reasonable manner, and your explanations and logic make sense, that's probably good enough for this judge.

And what if materials have disappeared? No originals? Pieces are oversized and unmailable? Your company believes some portions of the submission are proprietary?

Just explain. Let the judge know why your submission is less than complete or imperfect. Don't do hand-waving; just offer a clear, well-written, logical explanation.

As a judge, I understand when the department secretary inadvertently sent out the last original and you have to submit a photocopy. As long as what you submit is the highest-quality, best representation of your work that's available under the circumstances, I'll usually be understanding. But tell me what happened, so that I don't get in a hurry and just think you submitted poor-quality or incomplete work.


RBB: One final comment: I love judging communications competitions. I see the best work - the best thinking - of many excellent communicators. Competitions are excellent ways to become better at doing best-practice work on the job, and to learn what others do when they encounter business communications problems.

Best of luck to you as you enter Bronze Quill, Silver Quill, Gold Quill and other competitions.

If I can do anything to help, contact me:

Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR
The Judge

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