Creating a Better Awards Program

How to turn a humdrum event into a hit

All of us have sat through more association award presentations than any innocent person should be sentenced to in a lifetime. And many are about as exciting as attending the high school graduation of some stranger’s kid.

Could your annual award presentation be named the Most Tedious Event of the Year? There are a few telltale signs. Ask yourself: Has it become harder each year to convince members to nominate someone for an award? At your group’s annual convention, does the awards presentation turn out to be the least-attended event on the program? During the awards ceremony, do attendees completely ignore the proceedings and engage in raucous banter despite repeated pleas from the podium for decorum? If you’ve noticed any (or all!) of these, it’s time for a revamp. Fortunately, it’s not hard to turn things around.

Award programs typically fail because:

1. Too many awards are being presented.

2. Some awards have become irrelevant.

3. Ceremonies are amateurish, uninspired or just dreadfully dull.

In the worst cases, it is a combination of all three.

Quashing Quantity. A good rule of thumb is to never present more than a handful of awards at any event. If you must present more than four or five, break the program into bite-size modules; that is, present a few awards before the food service and a few after, or present one or two awards at different events over several days. If a program calls for recognizing a large group—such as graduates of a designation program—make the presentation as “this year’s class,” and have everyone stand on the stage together; then, read their names rapidly so that the entire group can be recognized in two minutes or less.

Not all of your association awards must be presented at the same event. Some could be presented at meetings other than the annual convention, such as a meeting of chapter chairs, during which an award for Chapter Leader of the Year might be appropriately presented. If your group puts on an annual leadership program, consider presenting awards like Committee Chair of the Year or Committee Member of the Year at that particular event. Additionally, spreading award presentations out over the year prompts the possibility of more media coverage as you can send out press releases on several occasions instead of just once.

Associations tend to hang on to each and every annual award, the thought process being, “Once presented, they must always be presented.” But when new awards are added, a program can become overly full, and when that happens, the value of all awards is diminished. The solution, then, is to carefully prune down your awards, selecting those that are most meaningful.

If you still feel the need to recognize a great number of people, select minor awards that will recognize recipients offstage utilizing other means. You might run a slide show during the meal service that recognizes these award winners, briefly recognizing their names verbally after the meal. Or use various communication channels—such as your magazine, newsletter, website or social media networks—to recognize less significant award winners in a prominent way. Or a video interview with award recipients could be sponsored and featured on your association website.

Eliminating Outdated Awards. Consider the awards you are scheduled to present. Do their titles still resonate? Social values evolve over time and some change very radically. How do you think a Man of the Year Award might be received today? In the 1950s, that was a common and very popular award title, but it would likely draw objections with modern audiences.

Awards that have been named after a significant member or advocate from long ago might also have become irrelevant with the passing of time, even if the achievement being celebrated remains valid. For example, consider the Founder’s Award, frequently named after someone credited with establishing the association decades ago and often presented to a member who has distinguished himself or herself in some extraordinary way. The problem, however, is this: Will a typical 30-something member identify with some guy who has been dead 90 years, especially when presented with an award depicting a man with a very long beard and holding a pocket watch? Maybe it is time to rebrand such esteemed awards with edgier labels.

Entertaining Options. Cynthia Thompson, an awards and recognition specialist for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, advocates incorporating video footage into presentations. For a recent award ceremony, her group asked some (not all) of its award winners to provide photographs of themselves—on the job, in the field, in the lab, with their family, etc.—which were then used for 30-second photo montages, timed just long enough for the recipients to move from the audience to the stage where the award was presented. The montages were combined with a voice-over of recipients thanking their colleagues and speaking about how the association had thus far influenced their career.

“The program’s script alternated between video and live speeches to maintain energy and audience interest through the evening,” Thompson said. “The videos were a success, and the program was very well received by everyone.” As an organizer, she liked how everything moved quickly, and now the group has videos that can be used for other applications, she said.

Poor production values can ruin a perfectly fine awards program, so do your best to ensure that you (or your IT department) can put something together of high quality. Remember that event audiences now measure what happens at association award presentations against what they see each week when they tune into “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars” or “Monday Night Football.” This doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands of dollars creating a Hollywood-caliber stage and video productions, but you will be expected to create a program that is innovative, compelling and appropriately scaled. How do you do that?

A good and simple first rule is to always hire professional talent to emcee your event. Local professionals, like a news anchor or sportscaster, make a good fit as they have the training, skills and stage presence that can rivet the attention of an audience. Do not allow any of the elected leadership to host the entire program; instead, work leaders into the script in small doses where their presence might be appropriate.

Make sure that your awards program is rich with entertainment value. Bob Higa, an illusionist who regularly hosts such programs for associations and corporations, uses magic and music to drive his performance. At a recent meetings-industry event that honored four recipients, Higa used a different illusion to introduce each person. The audience was spellbound and captivated. Higa strongly advocates the use of music to fill in any gaps in the action, to accompany recipients to and from the stage and to create dramatic moments.

While music and magic can greatly enhance awards programs, don’t dismiss completely original approaches. Richard Karpel, former executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, remembered a particularly memorable journalism awards program hosted by author and gay-rights activist Dan Savage in which Savage set some interesting rules at the beginning of the event: When each award was announced, the winner had to stand up and celebrate by doing a shot of bourbon. If the winner wasn’t present—a frequent occurrence—Savage had to throw back the shot himself. That wasn’t all. As a jest to awards programs in which female models bring out the prizes, Savage had two male bodybuilders wearing Speedo-style swimsuits distribute the awards—and the bourbon. “The awards program was as entertaining as any HBO special,” Karpel said. “Members talked about it for years afterwards. Clearly, however, this is an approach with limited cultural transferability.”

Most destinations offer a rich resource of local talent that can enliven award functions, anything from ensemble groups that write skits and original music to singers and actors who can often be secured to emcee at very attractive costs. Even symphony orchestras can be hired to add a cultural flair. Creativity and an eye toward fun rarely go unnoticed and tend to attract curious members who otherwise might not be interested in attending.

Any entertainment comes with a price, so consider sponsorship as a means to underwrite the cost of a robust awards program. Typically, professional talent will range from about $7,500 to $20,000, depending on the scope and the nature of the program and talent. Even at the high end, a sponsorship program that allows a sponsor to engage with the audience and award winners is well within reach if you offer special functions like a private reception before or after the ceremony. Enlist those within your group who are experts at promotion to make it happen.

Isn’t it time to plan an awards program that inspires interest and not boredom? With shorter presentations, more modern award titles and creative ceremonies, you may find yourself up for an award yourself!