Everything you need to know about writing award nominations that win.
by Ellen Summey
It’s a familiar scenario in most Army workplaces as awards season approaches. “Hey, here’s a stack of paperwork. Can you put together an award nomination for Maj. Megan Murphy* by tomorrow?” (*Names changed to protect the innocent.) Certainly, you can, but we all know Maj. Murphy deserves better than a last-minute effort.
One reason why award nominations are sometimes neglected until right before the deadline—writing them can be daunting! There are so many questions. “Where do I start? Which details should I include in this tiny little text box? What if I don’t do a good job and the person doesn’t win?” The pressure.
Well, worry no more. Here are some tried-and-true guidelines for writing great award nominations.
READ THE RULES
First—and we cannot emphasize this enough—read the rules. Every award has different nomination guidelines, categories, criteria and qualifications. Writing an award nomination without understanding the rules is a bit like taking an exam without ever going to class—you might pass, but it’s not the smartest approach. Pay particular attention to the required length, format, eligibility standards and any other details provided. When writing the nomination, you can refer to those guidelines to help keep yourself on track.
Many award packages require supporting documentation of some type, or coordination between multiple offices. Give yourself plenty of time to gather the needed materials, write a draft, solicit input from others, and then edit as necessary. And always keep an eye on the award announcement page for any potential changes to the due date, requirements, etc.
In award nominations, generalizations are not your friend. Try to be as precise as possible. “Maj. Murphy accomplished this goal faster and cheaper than anyone else” doesn’t say much. How much faster? How much cheaper? How did she do that? What was the impact? Why does this matter?
It would be more poignant to say—for example— “Maj. Murphy independently designed and built a functioning, miniature reconnaissance drone in three weeks, for a total cost of $25. All other attempts took a minimum of six months (some, up to three years) and cost between $7 million and $1.5 billion per unit. Through her ingenuity and commitment, Murphy has created a 1,000 percent cost savings for the Army and has established a new fabrication process that is 30 times faster and will directly result in lives saved on the battlefield.”
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Take a look at these three scenarios and then decide which one is most deserving of an award. Ready?
- Sally has done a great job at work this year, meeting 100 percent of her goals and gaining rave reviews from her colleagues.
- Dan completed a big project on time and on budget, delivering an important new tool to Soldiers and attracting the attention of Army senior leaders.
- Murphy successfully managed user testing for the Army’s hypersonic unmanned aerial vehicle (her normal job), and she also completed a voluntary six-month assignment as chief of engineering for Agency XYZ (not her job).
OK, that was too easy. The point here is that most award nominations should focus on how the person went above and beyond their job description. A strong nomination should show that, not only did they do their job well, but they even did more.
USE STAR POWER
Who will be listed as the main nominator on the packet? This is an important way to add credence to the things you say in the write-up itself. Starting with your immediate leader, begin asking the question and working your way up the chain of command. “Who should be the nominator for Maj. Murphy?” If your boss suggests the commander, then find out what the commander thinks. He or she might suggest a general officer or senior executive, and reach out to that person to ask. In general, having a more powerful person in the signature block will strengthen your nomination packet.
However, there is one big, HUGE caveat to this. Never, never list someone—whether a two-star or a captain—unless they agree to it ahead of time. What you don’t want is for the judging panel to call the person listed in the nominator block and surprise them with the news. “I’m sorry, who? I don’t even know a Maj. Murphy.”
The Army has a love-love relationship with jargon, but it’s not the best option for writing award nominations. This is especially true for industry awards. Federal 100 award winners, for example, are selected by a panel of distinguished judges who may not be as familiar with some terms. Best not to make them wade through acronyms and shop talk. “The ASA(ALT) G-1 NCO transitioned to the 51C MOS, attained DAWIA Level II certification in PQM and excelled in the DAU ACQ 0500 VILT course.” Clear as mud, right? Right.
This can be tricky, because acronyms are often the shortest way to get your message across, and space in award nominations is typically limited. Try to think about the simplest way to describe the person’s achievements, with no acronyms or jargon, and start from there. It’s important to make the write-up concise and understandable for anyone who reads it.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Who is going to be reading your nomination? Is it going to a board of Army officers? An internal group within your agency or organization? Perhaps a panel of industry experts? When writing a nomination, always keep your audience in mind. Use language that they understand and consider their priorities and experiences when listing achievements and accolades. For example, a group of Army acquisition officers might not understand Maj. Murphy’s experimental testing methods for hypersonic flight, but they would readily grasp the value of her Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) Level III certifications and her selection to lead Product Manager Flying Widgets. Make sure you are speaking the same language as your audience.
PULL THE PLATITUDES
“Maj. Murphy is a real tip-of-the-spear Soldier, go-getter and disruptor who shakes things up and gets the job done.” What does this mean, exactly—she has a good work ethic? Unfortunately for Maj. Murphy, there is not a lot of “there” there. We want the good major to be recognized for her outstanding work, so don’t waste valuable space on this kind of fluff. A little bit goes a long way.
With these tips in hand, go write some great nominations! Maj. Murphy is counting on you.