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Improve your chances of winning awards (and the free publicity that comes with it)

Picture of Charlie Gunningham
Charlie Gunningham

Last week, we listed some awards worth entering. Here, we share some advice on how to maximise your chances of winning…

I remember the call very well. It was May 2000, a month after the dotcom wreck in April, and we were slowly, but ever so surely, running out of money, with little hope of raising any more. Our little startup was barely 5 months old. To compound it all, my cofounder’s father had just passed away, and he was out of the country. I was not sure how we’d make the next few months out, let alone the year out.

I picked up the phone. Someone on the other end was inviting us to enter the grand sounding ‘WA Asia-Pacific IT&T Awards‘. Naturally I thought ‘How much?’ and she said it did not cost much to enter at all. And you get a 2-day trade show to display your business and network, followed by a gala awards dinner. I thought ‘what the hey’. We entered.

Improve your chances of winning awards (and the free publicity that comes with it)
Yeah, I didn’t believe it either…

Roll on a few weeks, and we’re sitting at the awards night on the same table as our competition, the other finalists in the E-Commerce category. They were all far larger and more established e-businesses and government agencies. One was an ASX listed company. We had no chance. What was I thinking, blowing our last few hundred dollars on these tickets?

It came to our award. Somehow the announcer read out our company name, and in a daze, I wandered towards to the stage to give one of those gushing ‘We really did not expect this, I want to thank everyone in the world‘ speeches that too many Oscar winners give. I’m glad you were not there, because it was really very sad.

Looking back now, the win came at a time when we needed it most. Somehow we got through those next few months and years, and the business worked. It’s probably not overstating to say that this award gave us the energy and confidence to keep going, when we were pretty close to chucking it all in.

Improve your chances

During a decade in that startup, I learnt how to maximise chances of awards success, and what judges generally look for. Every year from then on, we’d win at least one award (and entered two or three).

I now sit (or have sat) as a judge on all but one of the awards mentioned in last week’s post.

Although the following advice is not official – just my humble thoughts – I would urge you to read the following if you are going to enter awards. Why not maximise your chances to walking away with a gong? The free press, kudos and morale that results can be worth far more than the ticket price.

1. RTQ, ATQ!

When I was a school teacher, I used to drill this into my students

RTQ = Read the Question!
ATQ = Answer the Question!
(It’s amazing how many don’t)

It is soul destroying to read submissions that veer off the point, and do not stick to the judging criteria. A very good business may not do itself justice if it does not hit the points the judges are looking for (when they may have them in spades, but they did not earn a mention). I’m sure your product and people are lovely, but if the question concerned is all about your client acquisition strategy, why are you wasting precious words talking about other stuff?

Read the questions and criteria very carefully, make sure you give the judges the ammunition they are looking for. Judges are under time pressure too, and are looking for the good stuff, so make it easy for them.

Also – don’t leave questions out – you get zero points for a nothing answer! Answer every question as well as you can, according to the marks so given.

2. Easy to Read/Follow

Lay out your answer clearly. Use space.

If allowed, photos and diagrams are a good way to break things up. Write in clear sentences.

Make sure at least two other people proof read it, and are critical. What you leave out is as important as what you put in, but make sure what you put in matters, and is easy to follow. Some businesses get PR companies to write up the final copy – this is not a bad idea. It can look fantastic on the eye, and it does make it easier for judges. But you can do it yourself, just don’t make it look too home made and amateurish. Make it look grown up, professionally laid out. Punch above your weight.

Increasingly, submissions are now done online, and you have to stick to the word limit on each question. Type out your answers in documents first, spell check, and proof BEFORE copying and pasting your submission.

3. Use evidence

Use examples to back up your points.

There’s nothing like independent evidence, what others have said about you, testimonials, other awards you have won, perhaps even the number of Facebook fans or your traffic.

4. Don’t use Jargon

You understand all the ins and outs of your industry, but the judges may not. Speak in plain English. Let your passion flood out. If you can use less words, use less words. As few as possible. Judges have lots to read, make sure your best points come out clearly, so they are not missed inside wads of text. Don’t waffle! Go through it and hit your points.

5. Take your time

Don’t leave it to the last minute. Be prepared, and plan out your answers early, weeks before the deadline. Don’t enter it at the last minute either, enter with days to spare. This will set you apart from the others as being well organised. Your reputation will travel.

6. Involve your staff

Invite relevant members of your staff to help you with the submission. Writing the piece actually makes you all look back collectively at what you’ve done, where you are going, and think about what you want to do. It’s a good process in itself. This is the bit that can help galvanise your team. And take them along to the gala dinner where the winners are announced. Win or lose, it’s a team thing. Have fun on the night, and congratulate the winners if you are not among them. Enter again next year, learn from the experience.

7. Practice your pitch

If you get to the finalist stage and have to make a presentation to judges, then make sure this is extremely well rehearsed. Get other people to listen to your presentation.

Make sure you have your slides on various versions so there are no nasty surprises with technology on the day (this can be a killer). Drink some water beforehand, take a deep breath and take it slow. You know your business, you’ve got the words, let it come out of you. Do not read a script, do not read bullet points, use your slides as a visual aid only. You (yourself) tell the story, you have to be believable. Look the judges in the eye. Believe, and it’ll come across.

8. Be Yourself

Be human. Include something humorous. Explain some of your mistakes, and what you learned from them. Talk about your biggest wins, where you took a risk, planned your action, and went for it.

Explain why you’re in business. I doubt it’s “to make money”, there’s a deeper reason. There’s something you want to build, something you want to deliver, something you want to prove, something you want to fix or disrupt.

9. Enjoy it!

Awards should be fun. Make the submission sing, and enjoy the night. You never know, you might just walk away with a gong. And if not, no worries, come back next year, or choose another one. Get some feedback on your submission. Make it better next time.

10. Maximise the PR post awards

I know Aussies don’t like tall poppies. Stuff that. Collect the finalist or awards logos and make sure they are on your website, email signature. Pump out press releases, and get mentioned from now on as an ‘award-winning’ ebusiness. Contact the local press, and if you can, get a PR company to do this for you. If you can’t afford a PR firm, then make sure your press release is well written, like a story, with quotations from cofounders and a couple of good sized photos. Media organisations will thank for going to this trouble, and this will greatly enhance your chances of being featured.


And finally…

“One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.”

~ Oscar Wilde

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Picture of Charlie Gunningham

Charlie Gunningham

Former co-founder, GM, CEO Business News and Accelerating Commercialisation adviser. Charlie has spent 20+ years in Perth's startup scene, as founder, mentor, adviser, writer and investor. There's nothing he likes more than helping early stage tech startups ... and drinking coffee, shiraz or playing in a blues band. Email Charlie here.
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