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Confessions of an IABC Gold Quill Judge.

You know the standard swap. Your IABC chapter agrees to judge the entries for another chapter and they judge yours. Somebody puts out the call for volunteers.

I answer.

Why? Why volunteer to be a judge for a communication competition? For the promise of free pizza? For the friendly company? Well ... actually both of these are factors in my decision. But the main reason I volunteer to judge these contests began way back when -- when I first started entering contests.

One of my coworkers and I were painstakingly putting together our entries, and she asked, 'I wonder what the judges will be looking for?'

Well, duh. What better way to find out what judges look for in communication contests than to become a judge myself? And so, for the next few paragraphs, I'm going to reveal -- for the first time -- from my experience, the inside story of judging. This is the gritty reality, folks.

No. 1. Judges are regular people

I make a living writing speeches, working with people in the media, and creating publications. You might be the editor of a newsletter, or a media relations type, too, or the director of a PR department. So ... what do you think judges do for a living? Judge?

I mean, do you think there are professional communication contest judges who travel from city to city like baseball umpires? Nope. The judge gets a paycheck for doing the same kind of work you do. He or she writes news releases and annual reports and makes spelling mistakes just like all of us do. He or she is no smarter, richer or better than you or me.

So, should you be intimidated? Hardly.

No. 2. Judges enter contests, too

Just like you -- at one time or another -- the judge has attempted a snow job on another judge just like you're attempting. The judge knows exactly what it means when you write on your entry form, "This material was very, very well received by its intended audience." They know exactly that you have absolutely no objective data to back yourself up. How do they know? Because they've tried to get away with the same b.s. themselves!

So, if you want to know what impresses a judge ... think about what impresses you. Because judges are folks just like you. What would impress you? Oh ... well ... I don't know, maybe ... honesty? How about if you just write, "While no formal communication audit was taken of these materials, we did receive a number of calls from people who told us they liked it and were using it. Plus, nobody said they didn't like it. Our bosses all liked it, and we still have our jobs." I'd be impressed.

No. 3. Judges are in a hurry

When do you think contests are judged? Do you think judges take a whole day off from work -- like a retreat -- so they can devote their every thought to your entry? Nope. These contests are usually judged after work. So, think about it. It's 5:30 p.m., the judges are tired, and they'd rather go home, take a shower, and watch a rerun of "The Cosby Show," but they've agreed to spend the next three hours reading annual reports.

If you were one of them, would you want to read some pompous 10-page description of a newsletter entry? What would make the judges happy? How about a short, tight, one-page description? Maybe something in a friendly, conversational style. Give them that, and you've made their day.

No. 4. Judges are the most impatient with videos

Once you get into a judging rhythm, you can really fly through annual reports. And you can skim through company newsletters pretty fast, too. But it's impossible to watch an entry in the video category any faster than it actually is. I mean, if this corporate video is eight minutes long, it's going to take eight minutes to judge. OK, you can try to run it on visual fast forward, but that can give you an awful headache. (Trust me.)

Try this novel idea. If you're entering a video program in a communication contest, include a sheet of viewing instructions. Tell the judges what they'll be seeing for the next eight minutes. If five of those minutes are repetitive information, let the judges know and instruct them to fast forward through those sections. That's five minutes sooner the judges can get home.

No. 5. Beware of the elaborate presentation

I've judged entries that look like children's pop-up books. There are fold-out pages, scotch-taped inserts, paper-clipped tabs, and at least 800 yellow Post-It notes scattered throughout a three-ring binder about the size of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments (and about as heavy, too).

Do I sift through all of this? Well, I kind of feel guilty not sifting through it. After all, the entrant was so in love with this project that he or she dedicated about a week to the task of assembling the entry. But, does it impress me -- as a judge -- more than a straightforward, simple, and clean presentation? No. And sometimes it even makes me suspicious. Is the entrant trying to snow me again, with style over substance?

The truth is, friends, that we folks in Cleveland always try to give each out-of-town entrant a fair and honest reading or viewing. But, the truth also is that we folks in Cleveland -- like folks everywhere -- are only human. We get tired of video programs that run longer than a rerun of "Winds of War." We get jaded when we read an entry sheet that sounds like it was written by a used car salesman. And we're not at all impressed when your entry is more complicated to figure out than a highway road map.

We judges in Cleveland just want to know what you did, how you did it, and what it cost you to do it. Also, if you know -- and can quantify in some way -- what effect your product had, that would also help us in our decision.

Yes, we get frustrated. But we still try to be fair, because we expect other judges in other cities to be just as fair with our stuff.

So, what's the point? Is there a big finish? Is there a lesson in all this?

OK. Why not?

I guess the bottom line is if you want to get a better idea about how you can enter communication contests -- and win -- then become a judge of others. It won't cost you anything but a couple of evenings out of your life that you would have spent watching TV reruns anyway.

I know that every time I judge a competition I learn new ways to improve my own work by seeing first-hand what others consider to be their best work. And, I've definitely learned to answer the question that my associate asked me a long time ago when we were entering a contest, "I wonder what the judges will be looking for?"

John David Sidley is a speech and publications writer for United Way of Greater Cleveland, Ohio, as well as a free-lance comedy writer.


To start, each entry must have the following five basic elements:

1. Problem or opportunity

This section must contain the nature of the problem or opportunity that the communication project was designed to address. It should discuss how the problem or opportunity was brought to the communicator's attention, and define the target audience, including size, location, characteristics and other demographics.

2. Goals and objectives

This area should outline detailed goals and objectives of the project prior to its implementation. It should include a discussion on how these objectives relate to overall organizational objectives.

3. Implementation

How the actual work was carried out and the nature and extent of the communicator's involvement should be discussed here, as well as problems that may have arisen during implementation and how those problems were dealt with or overcome. The communicator may discuss time and budget limitations and any changes in the goals and objectives and why they were necessary.

4. Results and evaluation

The method(s) built into the plan for evaluating the project's effectiveness and determining how well the message was communicated should be outlined here. If no evaluation was built in, this section should address why it was not. The communicator can discuss what, if anything, should have been done differently.

5. Budget

The entry should discuss the cost of the communication project, preferably in some detail.


Some possibilities are:

* no measurable objectives,

* an inability to define "implementation,"

* failure to realize stated objectives,

* no documented results or plans for evaluation,

* failure to follow the rules/directions for entries.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators
Author:Sidley, John David
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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