Apply for Small Business Awards, But Have A Great Story

Awards and recognitions have been a staple in the small business landscape for a long time. The good news is that awards are more popular than ever. Media publications, non-profits, trade associations, chambers of commerce, governments, even large corporations offer awards honoring small businesses.

Some business owners I know stay away from applying for awards and honors out of modesty. They feel it would be narcissistic to seek out an award.

If that’s you, I urge you to set aside any preconceived ideas.

Far from being narcissistic, awards serve several important purposes for small business owners. Awards are terrific PR triggers, often leading to media coverage. They act as validation for your success, and can be highly motivating to you and to your employees. They can be great sales aids, because prospective customers take them as confirmation that you are doing things right.

Best of all, the majority of awards are free to enter. All they take is time — time to think through and expertly craft an application. Most of all, they need a good business story.

I have had the opportunity to serve as a judge for several small business awards. I have used up a number of my weekends reading through scads of applications. It takes a stint as a judge to drive home what it truly takes to win an award.

Many factors come into play when judging award nominations. But a compelling story is a necessity. Unless you have a great story and can tell that story well, you will not make the finalist cut.

I discovered this the first time I judged, after I finished scoring and saw the scores of the other four judges. Sure there were many differences, but I saw a common theme. It was stunningly obvious: the businesses with compelling stories scored highest, on average.

Right about now you are thinking, “See! I knew it. Judges are influenced by fluff and fancy writing.”

Well, it’s not that at all.

If you think about awards, often the application guidelines require following a format that goes something like this: “state the problem or challenge, and how you overcame it.” Or they invite you to tell your success story. Or explain why you deserve the award.

That kind of format begs for a great story as part of the application package.

Yet, you would be surprised how many applicants gloss over this part of the application or sometimes ignore it altogether. Or if they address it, they do so matter-of-factly. Then their accomplishments seem unremarkable. Surprisingly, some applicants submit little more than canned marketing materials and product brochures. And that’s a shame, because you just know there is a story there somewhere . But if it does not appear in the application package, the judges cannot consider it.

Every small business is filled with drama. As business owners, our days are made up of crises and the minor miracles that avert disaster. Your warehouse was flooded just as you were getting ready to ship the biggest order in your company’s history to Wal-Mart. The guest canceled two hours before the live radio broadcast. The servers crashed just as you were about to do a live demonstration to the venture capitalists.

The circumstances may be different, but every business has these stories. Somehow your business survived and thrived. So, talk about it! Practice your storytelling ability and bring your story out.

What does it take to tell your business story? Here are some factors based on my experience judging small business awards:

  • Give it emotion and human interest. If it is cold with no emotion, the impact will not hit home.
  • Tell it like a story. Write it like a scene in a play, rather than some dry-as-dust financial analysis.
  • Explain the impact. Don’t assume the judges necessarily know your industry and why an outcome would have been disastrous or why your accomplishment is all the more remarkable. Connect the dots.
  • Be authentic. The story has to be credible (and true). If it’s over the top or reads like a Marvel comic or is campy, then the judges may assume you do not take the award seriously. After all, this is business.
  • Use colorful words. Use nouns of tangible things that you can see, hear, taste or touch. Use colorful action verbs. Passive voice or highly conceptual or corporate phraseology (e.g., “our strategic imperative”) makes it harder to understand.
  • Keep it succinct. Making your story a rambling 7 pages long does not make it better. Keep it short enough to hold the judges’ attention.

Even if you are not planning to nominate your company for an award, having a compelling story may just make your business more successful. John Richardson writes that having a good story is one of five success factors for small business.

So, practice telling your business story. Get good at it. It can only help.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

10 Reactions
  1. Aloha Anita,
    This is an exceptional article; truly wonderful coaching on how one’s business story is woven with much more meaning and potentially powerful impact than most may realize.

    There is a whole other side to this as well, in what the business story does for all the stakeholders of that business separate from marketing, inspiring them to add to it with their own chapters of engagement. I am forwarding your article to every single executive and business owner I coach for a person-to-person discussion in our next time together.

    Mahalo nui loa, thank you so much for writing this.

  2. Hi Anita — Modesty is human nature. I can’t imagine nominating myself for an award.

    I’ve also had a few colleagues send me information about business awards, saying they’d like to nominate me, so please send them some information about myself. My response has always been “No way”! Instead, I turn the tables on them and ask them for information about themselves so I can nominate them.
    Should a colleague want to nominate me for an award in the future, I’ll be sure to think about your post.

    Thanks for giving us “permission” to blow our horn a little.

  3. Good stuff, Anita. I wish some of our blogger friends would implement your advice in their posts.

  4. Thanks Rosa and Lynne and Mike. Having a great story is so important. — Anita

  5. This is such excellent advice, Anita. A small business won’t make the finalist cut with boring facts and accomplishments alone. Our business has won several awards and have learned that:

    1. You need to actively seek the opportunities out,. They do not land on your doorstep! And, yes, it’s okay to toot your own horn. Who else is going to do it?
    : )

    2. Tell stories (just what you said). I would go as far as to say if you don’t feel particularly skilled in writing, hire someone to do it. Give them the raw facts and data and let them come up with the best way to present it. Applying for and getting awards can be great PR tools.

    Very helpful post.

  6. Thanks, Judy, for your comment.

    The judges probably know little or NOTHING about your business — except what you tell them in your award submission. You have a chance to shape their perception, just like your sales team can shape the buyer’s perception.

    Don’t leave it up to chance. Judges are not mind readers.

    — Anita