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Laura Overton

Learning analyst

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The unexpected advantages of awards – and how to make your entry stand a chance

Entering awards is not just about getting an external slap on the back. It's an opportunity to reflect and learn.

Is your L&D work making a difference to your organisation and its people? Have you helped solve problems, seize opportunities and make an impact to support business success?

Making a difference can often be a lonely job. Rarely do we get time to reflect and learn from what we have done. Which is why I am a big fan of external award programmes – and probably not for the reasons that you think!

The process of putting an awards entry together helps to hold up a mirror to your approaches to adding better business value. And it gives you an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the results of stepping out of your comfort zone and make changes.

If you are at the beginning of your journey to making a difference, the awards process can provide you with some excellent guidelines for getting things done, if you know what to look for.

I have been involved with judging L&D awards for over 20 years, including the Learning category for the Culture Pioneer Awards, setting evidence-informed judging criteria and pouring through literally thousands of submissions over that time. For me this has always been a privilege, and I'm a passionate believer that awards programmes can help you get results - whether you enter them or not! 

When it comes to awards, the journey is very important – winning is the icing on the cake!

Awards criteria helps support project planning

Good award programmes don’t just snatch their judging criteria out of the air. The criteria will reflect the ageless principles that have continually proven to drive better business results. They will ask you to reflect on:

  • Context - Why this specific programme is important for your business & how you established this as a priority for your attention

  • Choices - why you made the choices you made in the first place

  • Collaboration - How you worked with others to get your solution rolled out

  • Risk - The risks involved, how you mitigated them & what you learned

  • Impact - The ultimate impact on the business as a whole

At the beginning of any significant project, it’s worth looking at award criteria to set the scene - whether you enter now, next year or never, at least you will have done the groundwork!

Awards success supports internal engagement

Many organisations are struggling to engage learners and managers, but in the first 10 years of the Towards Maturity Benchmark (now the Learning Performance Benchmark) we found that those organisations in the highest quartile were three and a half times more likely to report external successes in awards back to the business than those in the lowest quartile.

Year on year, the data showed us that external success in awards showed a direct correlation to internal take-up of learning innovation. This correlation may have been a reflection that organisations had worked their way through the judging criteria to deliver success. But we also found that external recognition is always good for building internal credibility!

Not everyone can be a winner but for most people just taking part in the awards process is a great way to change mindsets. Careful preparation for the award provides a great opportunity to reflect on lessons learned and the journey so far. 

When it comes to awards, the journey is very important – winning is the icing on the cake!

How to increase your chances of winning

How do you create a submission that impresses the judges and helps you stand out from the crowd?

Believe in yourself

I speak to many people who have done some really innovative work for their sector or size of business but continually compare themselves with others with different circumstances and feel that they just don’t stand a chance.

Most judges are looking for submissions that will help move the industry on and inspire change in others, this is not just a role for the big guns! If you haven’t considered entering an award before, why not sit down with your team and reflect on one of your projects that you’ve been most proud of, what’s worked, what you've overcome and what's been achieved?

Choose the right award and category for you

Do your research. Read the judging criteria carefully and consider how your story stacks up. The criteria are not chosen lightly and will reflect areas critical for sustainable learning success in organisations. 

Tangible evidence and proof in each area is a critical foundation for an award winner – more on that later! Select the category that will really profile your project’s strengths.

Ask yourself, is the learning programme that you have created outstanding and different from anything else you have seen? Is what you have created quite standard but has had incredible take up and therefore resulted in business success?

Our job as judges is to make heroes not to harangue you – this isn’t Dragons Den!

Don’t waste words – follow the free advice!

Most awards organisers provide clear instructions on word count, structure, and the type of evidence that they are looking for in a successful submission. Word count is important as it is often the first point of selection, particularly if an award is heavily subscribed. Judges might not even get to see an entry that exceeds word count, let alone read it.

Make sure you clearly map your entry to the criteria

When an award has clear judging criteria, often based on evidence-based approaches that lead to success, use the criteria to reflect on what you have done. Tell a good story but make sure that your submission clearly addresses each of the areas. 

Use great evidence to stand out from the crowd 

Historically, an award-winning programme might have been able to rely on its technology innovation, its take-up and learner satisfaction to take away the top prize. To stand out from the crowd you really need to think about how you can evidence real business change – for example, the impact on the job, reduction in time to competency and changes in productivity are all immensely powerful.

Judges will look for award winners who are driven, first and foremost, by the need to support their business’s goals and the impact of their learning on those goals. Don’t neglect anecdotal evidence from staff and key sponsors – their view on why this has made a difference to their lives and teams really works.

But good data is even better. If you don’t have any (and you should), why not send out a short survey to those who have taken part and their managers, asking some simple questions: What have you done differently as a result? How much time have you saved? How confident are you now? You may be surprised at what you get back. This approach raises the credibility of the sector, and the award process helps us transition from technical training geeks to valid business partners.

Consider carefully how you position cost efficiency savings

This is particularly important in submissions that illustrate innovative use of learning technology. Clear evidence of improved efficiency (and I would include time and cost here) for your solution is always welcome so that we can compare it with previous approaches you have used. BUT it is not the whole story.

We would also be on the lookout for the ‘so what’ factor - how has the new efficient approach delivered business impact in your organisation?

Bullet the killer facts 

Review time is limited for judges and as a result several short bullets outlining facts and figures from your organisation will have a better impact than a long anecdote. Equally minimise supporting documentation and evidence and only include what is necessary to illustrate your main points.

Be inspired by others

Most award programmes publish their winners. Check them out, join the webinars and read their stories.

Make the most of face-to-face time 

If the award includes a face-to-face presentation with the judges (probably once you have been shortlisted), then make sure it packs a punch! Take note of any feedback you have received and be prepared to dig deeper.

From the judge’s perspective it’s fascinating to meet with participants in such a focused way and we always want to find out more! In my experience the Q&A time is often the moment where the winner stands out.

Read the award submission guidelines…

And keep to them – enough said!

The awards season helps us reflect, grow and challenge our thinking. Importantly, it’s not a time to be shy.

How to NOT win an award

Here are four things to avoid when entering an award…

  1. Don’t make up your own rules about your submission – it may make perfect sense to you but if you don’t follow the competition rules you probably won’t get the recognition you deserve.

  2. Don't overwhelm your case with jargon - use plain english to state your case so that we can all celebrate your success, not just those in your company and industry.

  3. Don’t add irrelevant detail – that includes obvious sales pitches about your product or organisation.

  4. Don’t make silly mistakes – spell & grammar checkers are available to everyone for free, so use them.

  5. Don’t think negatively – take an honest look at the project you’re most proud of, choose your category and give it a go!


Throughout the process, don’t forget to have fun. Whilst it seems a bit nerve-wracking, all the judges I know are there because they are genuinely interested to learn about what you are doing. Our job as judges is to make heroes not to harangue you – this isn’t Dragons Den!

Also, tell others. Being shortlisted not only helps you raise awareness within your own organisation but also with other L&D professionals in the industry, so let the world know.

The awards season helps us reflect, grow and challenge our thinking. Importantly, it’s not a time to be shy.

Be proud about your unique strengths and shout out why you deserve to win. 

Inspired to give it a go? Laura Overton is a judge for the Culture Pioneer Awards, and the entry period is still open! It’s free to enter and includes a Learning category for L&D folk to demonstrate their successes.

Author Profile Picture
Laura Overton

Learning analyst

Read more from Laura Overton

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