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Shooting for a Gold Quill.

Competition just naturally spawns argument. You'd think that the creative arts would be free of contention, but that's not the way it works.

The world loves a winner, and everyone in the world loves to win. Athletes perform heroics to score the winning run. Politicians move heaven and earth to get elected. Dog fanciers spend a lifetime trying to breed a grand champion. Communicators shoot for a Gold Quill. We all hope to win. Some of us do and some of us don't, and in the tradition of poker players, the winners tell funny stories and the losers holler deal.

Sometimes they holler "raw deal."

Competition just naturally spawns argument. You'd think that the creative arts would be free of contention, but that's not the way it works.

Back in 1956, when I was serving as president of the old Society of Associated Industrial Editors, I had a vice president named Alton D. "Ziggy" Sears. It was Ziggy's job to manage SAIE's annual awards program. Ziggy was conscientious, so he was disturbed by the criticism that he and his committee got from entrants about the rules governing past contests. They were too stingy with the awards. There were too few categories. Periodicals having nothing in common were forced to compete with each other. Periodicals with small budgets were forced to compete with periodicals with large budgets. It wasn't fair. There was no justice. And too few people had a chance at recognition. In short, the beefs in 1956 were pretty much the same beefs judges hear today.

But Ziggy took these complaints to heart. He decided to do something to accommodate the view that too few people had a chance at an award. He introduced what he called the Pacemaker Award. Any editor entering anything in the contest in any category automatically got a Pacemaker Award. Ziggy reasoned that anyone who thought enough of his or her publication to enter it in a contest was, by definition, a pacemaker and deserved recognition for the effort. All you had to do to get a Pacemaker Award was to enter. However, Ziggy did not explain this to the entrants, or even to me.

We had a couple of hundred entries that year and each entrant was notified that he or she was to receive a Pacemaker Award. They were all pleased. People who had been trying to win an award for years were delighted that they had finally scored. Each of them assumed that the award was for editorial accomplishment - not just for entering. About a hundred Pacemaker winners showed up at the awards ceremony to receive their honors, some of them escorted by a retinue of company officials to witness the rewarding of the incumbent genius. Then, when it became apparent that there were more than just a few Pacemakers around, Ziggy was asked to explain the qualifications for it. When the winners found out, they were furious. They complained that they had been given an award for nothing. So now all the criticism went the other way. There were too many awards. The awards were meaningless because anyone could win. There were no standards of excellence, no true recognition of merit, no substance to the achievement.

At this point, I concluded that there is no entirely equitable way to write rules for business communication contests. Judges can be no fairer than they know how to be, and they all have their personal prejudices and biases, their pet peeves. They are, it seems, only human.

That's why IABC has institutionalized the procedure of judging so as to establish standards and build into the judging, process as much objectivity as possible. I have been a party to a good bit of this work in the course of serving as a judge, and I have sat in meetings and heard impassioned debate about how to assure fairness and guarantee wise decisions. In fact, some of the language in the rules is mine. Over the years, these debates. and cumulative wisdom have helped Gold Quill become a very good program indeed, and one in which you can participate with confidence.

You may find it reassuring to know that the rules did not spring fully grown like a competitive Minerva from the forehead of some industrial Jupiter; that they are still being polished and perfected. Today, we don't compare apples and oranges. The rules make a genuine effort to eliminate the impact of a big budget. They stress substance over form. And they seek to relate all judgments to common standards that apply to and are appropriate for all entries.

In general, the most basic criterion in today's competition is: How well does the communication meet the objectives that the sponsor has set for it? Thus, the judge is not asked to look at two communications and decide which is the prettier, to judge a beauty contest, if you will. Instead, the judge is asked to consider whether one has done a better job of meeting its objectives than another. I can assure you that many a big-budget program that didn't use its assets wisely has been tossed out in favor of a low-budget program that did a superb job with the means at the communicator's disposal. Money, then, is not a guarantee of an award. It's what you do with the money that counts with the judges.

Now I will admit that scoring well in this or any contest may not be as easy for those who have a very low budget as it might be if you had plenty of money to work with. A talented and hardworking editor with money will usually outscore a talented hardworking editor without money. But I don't see this as necessarily unfair. The contest, after all, is a test of the goals and intent of the sponsoring organization as much as it is of the skills of the communicator. An organization that understands the value of communication and is willing to invest enough money in it to make it pay off shouldn't be discounted because another organization is too short-sighted or penurious to do the job right. Provision of an adequate budget is one test of whether an organization is serious about carrying out an effective communication program. So I see no reason to excuse or make allowances for those who plead poverty.

But, getting back to our criteria, by focusing on objectives, we avoid the difficult task of making subjective comparisons. Judges evaluate each entry with the help of a scoring sheet. This is a standard device whose purpose is to guide the judge through the areas to be evaluated to assure consistency and to help the evaluator be as objective as possible. The scoring sheets divide the points into five major categories: (1) The Problem or Opportunity, (2) Goals and Objectives, (3) Implementation, (4) Results and Evaluation, and (5) Overall Evaluation, or the quality of the entire package. These are outlined in the "Call for Entries" sent to all IABC members well before deadline. Judges score on a point system. If the evaluator finds, for example, that all the stories in a publication are outstanding, he or she might give the publication a top score of 7. If only half of them meet this test, it might get a satisfactory 4. The ratings help the evaluator to be as objective as possible.

You will find on examining these scores that much of the score derives from the communicator's achievement of objectives and demonstrated proof of accomplishment. This is where today's contest departs dramatically from those of earlier years. It used to be that the judges would say, in effect, "Send us your projects. We'll look them over, and if we like yours, we'll send you an award." Now, we are saying that there is more to this business than the creation of a pleasing piece of printing or a dramatic video tape. We want to know what kind of a challenge you were faced with, what sort of solution you created for it, and what kind of results you achieved with it. We look for planning, research and measurement. We also look for ingenuity and extraordinary execution. We want communication that increases employee productivity, that persuades stakeholders, that influences customers. We want illustrations and prose that please the eye and stimulate the mind.

Another thing: When you enter Gold Quill, keep in mind that you have a lot of good competition out there. The number of entries routinely runs over 1,600. The final Blue Ribbon Panel reviews the top 20 percent of some very good work. Technically, all of these entries are superior. They look good. As a product, they rank very high. The determining factor in deciding winners and losers is almost always the documentation of results that support the entry. I once judged a category involving three finalists in which the quality of the work produced a three-way tie. The decision was finally made on the basis of tenths of a point on the quality of objectives and the evaluation of results. Within a spread of three-tenths of a point, then, one entry took an award of excellence, one an award of merit, and one got nothing to show for it. When half of winning depends on your quantification of objectives and results, then your supporting documentation must be as good as the communication medium itself.

In each of 83 categories, judges can give two types of awards - excellence or merit. Sometimes awards are not given in a category because the judges feel the entries were not deserving. Sometimes, when truly earned, more than one award is given in a category. And each year the judges watch for one entrant who excelled in research - one who stood out over all others - on whom to bestow the Jake Wittmer award.

Over the years, judges have noted the most common reasons for failing to make the final cut:

(1) The most common reason is lack of supporting documentation for claims made. Judges are told that a communication was "well received." We are assured that no one complained. We are told that everybody liked it. (Everybody in the communicator's family, that is.) We are assured that the work successfully accomplished its purpose, but there is no proof of it. If an entry does not mention effectiveness in terms of budget, time and resources, judges get grouchy.

(2) As a corollary to Number One, there is the communicator's failure to conduct meaningful research - to measure results and evaluate the communication's impact. What this usually means is that the communicator simply didn't include evaluation in the program and didn't have time to do anything about it when the contest deadline rolled around. So we come back to Number One: No supporting documentation. This drives up judges' blood pressure.

(3) The communicator confuses the job of creating a communication with the problem that the program is supposed to resolve. Many entrants respond to the question, "What was the opportunity?" with the answer, "To put out a magazine on time and on budget." Wrong. That's the job. The problem or opportunity is the challenge the communicator is supposed to meet with the medium at his or her disposal. Judges grit their teeth when this is lacking.

(4) The communicator cites goals and objectives that are vague and nonspecific. The communicator says that objectives are to inform, to educate, to persuade. Yes. But about what? To what end? And what was at stake? Such goals are essentially meaningless. They have no substance. Everybody does those things. So what else is new? Judges hate this sort of thing.

(5) Fifth among the shortcomings is pedestrian execution. The work itself is ordinary. Uninspired. It lacks distinction. It is unexceptional. It has no spark. It doesn't sing. This is not to say that the information is inaccurate or that it failed to communicate. Just that it didn't do this any better than any other entry. And the judges, of course, look for excellence. The contest doesn't reward simple journeyman competence. It rewards work that transcends competence. When judges see pedestrian work, they foam at the mouth. A bad sign.

(6) Some entries are done in by simply overstating what was accomplished. The communicator outlines a good program and cites praiseworthy objectives, together with sound plans for implementation and evaluation. But when the judges look at what the entrant had done, they find that the work itself falls short of what the communicator planned and claimed for it. The statement of objectives and results are the best part of the entry. It promises more than it delivers. This makes judges run about in tight circles and utter shrill cries.

(7) Finally, a number of entries fail because the medium chosen was inappropriate for the task given it. For example, we see quarterly periodicals filled with so-called "news" - news that was ancient history by the time the readers received it. We see newsletters misused as magazines with long interpretive feature articles. When judges find sows' ears being used for silk purses, they sympathize with the pig.

To recap, the seven principal shortcomings in Gold Quill entries are (1) lack of supporting documentation, (2) failure to measure and evaluate results, (3) confusion as to the definition of problems and opportunities, (4) lack of specific goals and objectives, (5) pedestrian execution, (6) failure to follow through on plans, and (7) inappropriate use of the medium. With these shortcomings in mind, then, how do you go about shooting for a Gold Quill?

First, get a copy of the IABC book called "No Secrets." It will cost you about $60, but it is worth every penny as a short course in communication procedure. "No Secrets" is a compilation of the supporting documentation that accompanied each winning entry in the most recent Gold Quill contest. Read the ones that apply to the categories you expect to enter. Note how the winners organized their material. Consider the language they used.

Second, start a year in advance to accumulate the materials that you will need to win. Don't wait until the last minute. If you find yourself unable to enter the contest because you lack the necessary documentation, you should ask yourself whether you are doing your job right.

Third, identify problems or opportunities that affect your company's economic mission and start doing something about them so that you will have something of substance to enter when the time comes. Look at your schedule of planned communication and try to identify one that might serve as a showcase for the best you can do. Then really unload on that one. Remember that the judges will be looking for something that transcends the mundane. Give them something special to consider...a real barn-burner.

Fourth, include in your plans a way to measure and evaluate results. Discuss with your management the advantages of conducting a survey, mailing out a response card or holding a focus group. Or go visit 10 or 20 stakeholders and write down their responses concerning the effectiveness of the communication. Whatever you decide, do something. Don't just tell the judge, "it was well received." When did you ever publish something that was poorly received?

Finally, pick as your entry the example that is most likely to make a judge sit up with pleasure and say, "I wish I'd done that." And support it with solid, credible documentation to justify your genius. Try to put yourself in the judge's chair. Try to anticipate what will pique the interest of a tired, jaded, and somewhat cynical old party who has already read 43 entries and has 56 more to read.

Perhaps you are wondering if it is fair to ask you to justify your genius to a Gold Quill judge. Would Leonardo da Vinci be asked to justify the Mona Lisa? Well, hardly. Would Shakespeare be asked to evaluate "Hamlet?" No way. But if you are a business communicator, the answer is yes. If you cannot justify your work to a judge, you cannot justify it to your boss. If you cannot justify it to your boss, you are not doing your job. If you are not doing your job, you will not have the luxury of doing that job for very long, genius or not. Conversely, if you are doing your job, then you are already justifying your work to your boss routinely. If you can justify it to your boss, you can justify it to a Gold Quill judge. Your Gold Quill entry, then, should require nothing more of you than a summary of what you normally do on a day-to-day basis.

Genius is no excuse for lack of planning and slipshod record keeping. Too many of us in business communication concern ourselves only with the means, and forget the ends. We don't justify what we do because we feel that just doing it is enough. But it won't be enough to win an award, and it may not be enough when the boss asks you to justify your continuing presence on the payroll.

So, is Gold Quill a good contest? Well, some managements laugh at contests and say that they have no real relationship to the interests of the business. They see them as awards for the irrelevant and praise for the incompetent. But you can turn this around by showing how this contest emphasizes the achievement of objectives and practical results - as opposed to the artsy and cutesy - or a preference for form over substance. You must make the point with the boss that this isn't ars gratia artis; it's ars gratia profits. Your employer should be made aware that the Gold Quill contest has significance above and beyond the glorification of an individual or the recognition of talent; it encourages the development of a businesslike approach to the task of business communication, which is what employers want and expect of us.

On that basis, I think everyone should enter Gold Quill. How else can you test the quality of your work? Don't you want to know how good you are? Aren't you interested in getting better? How will you know if you are improving if you don't test your skills against those of others? Your employer can't tell you. Your mother doesn't know. The only way you can learn is by comparing your work with that of your peers...through the Gold Quill program. It's what distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs. So take an interest in your career development. Shoot for a Gold Quill. Don't do it for IABC. Don't do it for your employer. Do it for yourself. Win or lose, you are the one who stands to benefit the most.

Downs Matthews, ABC, is a freelance writer in Houston, Texas, and can be reached at (713) 664-3937.
COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:award for excellent communicators
Author:Matthew, Downs
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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