7 Tips on Winning Awards – Tip #2

February 1st, 2011

Tip #2: Read the Question

The more I work on award submissions, especially when I’m offering strategic input on an existing draft, the more I’m certain that this is an incredibly important piece of advice for everyone.

What do I mean by this seemingly obvious directive?

Well, that’s just it. It’s not so obvious. Because sometimes award questions aren’t obvious. They’re sometimes several questions in the guise of just one, and often they’re tough questions, especially where metrics are concerned.

And the human brain is a tricky thing. I’ve seen draft responses to award queries (and RFPs, and business school applications, and…), written by very intelligent people, that simply don’t answer the question. They answer a part or a version of the question – focusing on a topic they feel most comfortable with rather than actually answering the question.

And that doesn’t win awards.

What do you mean, some people don’t know how to answer a question?

OK, some examples.

I recently edited and refined a draft submission for a corporate training department. The question asked about the processes and reporting used to measure the impact of learning programs on individual and company performance.

The draft extensively described how the company measures individual and company performance, full stop. Learning was barely mentioned. Why?

My best guess: the writer subconsciously filtered out the learning part, providing more readily available answers. Is that person foolish? Careless? Nope. He’s bright, dedicated and conscientious.

I saw the same thing working on RFPs while in business development for a global marketing agency. Questions about various areas of expertise were farmed out to the relevant departments and my job was to put them together into a cohesive document. Not too different from how some companies approach award submissions.

The data group, for example, once responded to a query about how the agency used data to accomplish X (a relatively new area in the agency world) by writing about how they use data to accomplish Y (a standard approach with which our agency had deep experience). The writer did not mis-read the question, she mis-filtered the question – to put it back in her comfort zone.

Why am I singling out the data group? Because their core expertise is not communications. And the person who had drafted the answer to the learning measurement question? From finance and operations.

What do you mean, quant jocks can’t write?

I’m not saying, of course, that numbers/formulas people can’t communicate. My point is that folks for whom writing and “spin”* is not a core competency will often have a harder time crafting appropriate responses than communications professionals whose expertise is expressing precisely what needs to be expressed. If I had to work with spreadsheets or plan complex logistics, I’m quite sure I would not perform at the same level as I do with strategic writing initiatives.

So how does one avoid falling into the filter trap? Here are some ideas for both the number lovers and wordsmiths among us:

  • Restate the question. Write it out using different words and more detail to make sure you’re clear on exactly what’s being asked.
  • Make a checklist. Break the question into discrete parts and reference it as you craft your response.
  • Outline your answer. It works. Before you turn your outline into prose, make sure you’ll be covering all aspects of the exact question, not some part or version thereof.
  • Reread the question. As many times as you need to, checking and rechecking to make sure the question and answer match

I go through these steps, especially the last one, every time. And it’s my specialty! If communicators need to keep themselves in check, so much so anyone else vying for industry recognition from an award.

In the next installment: Start Early! There’s more to an award submission than meets the eye.

See Tip #1: Know Who You’re Talking To

Questions? Comments? Drop me a line: deb@debarnoldink.com

* Spin is NOT a dirty word, despite having four letters. So say I.

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