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How to write a winning award entry (secrets from the judging panel)

Follow these six tips to creating a winning award entry.


Recently I was lucky enough to spend the best part of a month judging hundreds of applications for The CEO Magazine’s annual Executive of the Year Awards.

A humbling and heartening experience, particularly during these very challenging times, I was truly inspired by some remarkable applications from Australia’s best executives. I say ‘some’ because, full disclosure, they weren’t all exceptional.

In fact, there were those that were toe-curlingly terrible; from one-line explanations (Really? You couldn’t come up with a few more adjectives?) to answers that included LOTS of words but didn’t say anything. No, it would appear Ronan Keating wasn’t right when he said, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”

Some were littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, and others clearly hadn’t bothered to read the criteria. Oh, and a couple of execs who thought, because they acted like the CEO, they should be eligible for the CEO category, even if those three letters weren’t in their title. You know, it doesn’t really work that way.

By the same token, there were some extraordinary entries. Full of figures and statistics, passion and conviction, experience and knowledge, they made judging interesting, inspiring and almost easy.

Fact-checked and spellchecked, and with just the right amount of detail and data, these applications stood head and shoulders above the rest. Want to know who came top of the pile? Join us for The CEO Magazine’s virtual Executive of the Year Awards on 12 November – you can register your interest here.

Want to know how to write a winning business award application? These six tips will show you how.

6 six tips to creating a winning award entry


  1. Put in the effort – it really shows
  2. If you’re going to apply for an award, please give it the time it deserves – you simply can’t write a thoughtful entry at the last minute. Those that score highest have clearly put the work in and provided the required information (and then some). You can spot a rushed application a mile away, so do yourself, and your business, justice and put some care and thought into your submission. We say it takes a couple of hours to fill out an application, but I’d recommend you do it in stages and over days, maybe even a week. Answer the questions and come back to review them later – I’ll bet you $1,000* you’ll significantly rework your application the second time around, and it’ll be so much better than your first iteration. This one step might even be the difference between you winning and losing.

  3. Stick to the word count
  4. This might not seem like a big deal, but word counts are important for a couple of reasons. First, they ensure the judging panel is given enough time to get through all entries by the deadline date, and second, they provide a level playing field for all applicants. Writing 500 words when you’re given 50 will not win you any favours or awards. In fact, those extra 450 adjectives you laboured over won’t even be read. The same can be said for going under the word count – a single-sentence answer is never, ever going to cut it. Use what you’ve been given to devise a succinct, informative and engaging response to really stand out from the crowd. It works; believe me.

  5. Tell us your story
  6. Your application shouldn’t just be facts and figures (although they are essential – see next step). It should tell a story: your ‘why’. These are the entries that stop judges from glazing over and reaching for the wine (I’m kidding, we don’t always drink and judge); they are the ones that are remembered. From your struggles to your successes, your story is unique to you, and the thing that makes judges sit up and take notice. Tell us about a problem you experienced, how you overcame it and what you learned from it. It’s these perfectly painted pictures that show true leadership qualities worthy of an award.

  7. Prove it
  8. It’s all well and good to say you’re the best thing since bread came sliced, but you also need to prove it. Exceptional award applications are jam-packed with stats, facts and figures, so hit us between the eyes with them. Winning entries always back up their claims with measurable results.

  9. Write it offline first
  10. Have you heard the story about the computer that crashed halfway through an application? For the love of all things old-school, please write your entry offline before you submit it online. Not only will this prevent you from losing all your hard work in case there’s a dreaded system failure, but you’ll be able to spellcheck it (again, and again), check it for inconsistencies and repetition, and even get a second or third opinion from a handful of colleagues. Speaking of which, it’s always a great idea to get your co-workers involved, particularly if it’s an award for work. Ask them to gather data or metrics during the application stage, and they’ll feel good when you walk away with an award.

  11. Make it perfect
  12. Let me start out by saying that I’ve been an editor for 20-something years, so my eyes are trained, like heat-seeking missiles, to look out for grammatical errors. I can spot a double space at 100 paces, misused apostrophes really grind my gears and I don’t think there is ever any excuse for a spelling mistake. I proofread shop signs, menus and messages scratched into bathroom doors, so when I come across an application for a business award that is littered with errors, well, let’s just say, it doesn’t fill me with joy. So – I’m begging you – please ensure your entry is perfect. If spelling isn’t your strong suit, that’s okay; work with an editor or a proofreader or ask John in HR who’s great at Scrabble. Just aim for perfection. That’s not a lot to ask, surely? Oh, and good luck!

    * Not a real bet, of course.

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