Is there a ‘Secret Sauce’ for Winning Awards?


I was recently asked to judge an awards category for some well respected awards within the education sector. Given that I have almost twenty years of experience working within Further Education, and I have on many occasions been the proud recipient of sector awards, I felt privileged to be invited to judge, and also a little intrigued to explore the inner workings of the awards and the rigour involved in judging a category.

I understand the importance of awards and the power they have to recognise both team and individual efforts across a range of specialisms. Having managed teams that have been nominated for, and won awards in the past I value nominations and have seen firsthand how well received being selected as a nominee and as a finalist can be for all involved. A nomination and subsequent shortlisting never fails to put a little pep into the recipients day.

I’m not quite sure if award organisers set out with the intention of ending a team meeting on a high, or of improving staff engagement and supporting change management/culture shifts, or to recognise department efforts outside of their office nucleus. But, I can tell you that I have witnessed all of these as a result of a nomination or shortlisting and more…!

For me, awards recognise, celebrate and justify efforts. They validate projects and expertise and authenticate teams to their peers, senior management and beyond. Being shortlisted really means something to everyone that takes the time to enter for an award, and whilst most people don’t set out with an ambition to solely promote themselves, their team(s) or the organisation – an inevitable opportunity arises, giving those nominated a platform to shout about their achievements and to promote their hard work inside and outside their organisation.

Awards are no longer simply a beauty pageant for those with the most expensive submissions. Many awards are recognised as a kitemark for success and sectors recognise the importance of celebrating achievements, rewarding talent and demonstrating best practice. There is a growing myriad of awards and categories that cut across every industry and specialist sector offering up a badge of excellence for employees, clients, stakeholders and competitors to observe.

I was curious to see for myself the standard of entries and the judging criteria, and to understand how award gradings are agreed and what the pitfalls are. Having entered many awards directly, and indirectly in the past I know all too well that submissions often offer up specific word counts and entries must carefully address criteria to make the grade. I had always, perhaps naively assumed that everyone submitting an entry carefully followed the submission criteria, abided by the word count and evidenced their submission against the questions posed. It seems I was wrong.

Judging an award category offers up some interesting learnings. For one, every approach is different, the style and length of submissions varied greatly despite all entrants following the same submission criteria. Go figure. And, the quality of submissions differed immensely. It was clear to see who had invested in award writing support and who had added the task of submitting an entry to an already overworked colleague. It was also interesting to see how entrants had overlooked very obvious grading opportunities, which caused them to miss out on a category placement or indeed the category win.

Having the ability to award Gold, Silver and Highly Commended my fellow judges and I were able to independently review submissions, score each entry and then collaborate to agree/disagree and mediate our scoring. The process was relatively robust and certainly took time and effort to read, research and score each entry. The category I was judging immediately offered up a very clear winner, making the subsequent placements easy to award. It was however frustrating to not be able to award very strong entries a place, simply because they had overlooked very simple criteria like providing the budget or articulating who was involved in the project. ‘If only they had read the small print’ kept springing to mind, and I’m sure when the winners are revealed some of the finalists will kick themselves that they’d overlooked such obvious scoring criteria and instead focussed on making their submission ‘look pretty’ with expensive branding and visuals.

You might be interested to know that on this occasion the winning entry was the shortest. It was submitted on the basic entry form typed up in word. It contained no flash visuals or graphics (none were requested). It had the most succinct supporting document with valuable information and figures. Most importantly for me it perfectly answered the submission criteria under the specified word count for every section, and it clearly demonstrated results with clear data and monetary values included. Quite simply it answered the brief. Gold.

My observations as a category judge have taught me these valuable lessons…

  1. Study the entry criteria as if it were an exam paper
  2. Do your homework carefully and ensure you can fully answer each section
  3. Read every question thoroughly and make sure you have not misinterpreted what is being asked
  4. Write each section as a draft to ensure you can fully answer everything
  5. Ensure you can demonstrate your answer – visually, with data, with examples, with URLs or PDFs & testimonials
  6. If you are asked a specific question provide a specific answer
  7. Provide the budget when asked (ideally demonstrate this against a proportion of your full budget to show scale)
  8. Articulate your research, benchmarking and evaluation processes
  9. Enter any KPI’s or Targets including when and how you achieved them with numerical/financial values 
  10. Link to live examples, stakeholder/client feedback and evaluations where appropriate
  11. Do not exceed the word limits
  12. Check your submission for spelling, grammar and punctuation
  13. Ensure your submission has been proofread 
  14. Keep supporting documents succinct and specific
  15. Make sure you accredit everyone involved in your submission

So, is there a ‘secret sauce’ to winning awards? Yes, I think so. 

In my opinion the secret sauce is very simple. Read the entry criteria carefully and answer the brief. I suspect that by doing this your submission will make nominee level 100% of the time by following this very obvious advice. After that you stand as good a chance as other entrants to make the finals and win – but remember you have no control over the other entrants so celebrate being nominated, cheer on being a finalist and keep everything crossed for a win. 

Remember that if you don’t win, ask for feedback on your submission and study the category winner(s) to learn from their entries and to apply these learnings to future submissions.

Now go forth and get winning some awards…

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