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​The Key to Better Internal Audit Reports

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Audit reports are critical for communicating the results of an audit. The best case is that weeks or often months of work are boiled down into a powerful narrative that drives positive action. The more likely case is that weeks or often months of work are laid out in a painstakingly long, drawn-out narrative full of jargon and overly technical details.

Many auditors will complain that writing simple audit reports in plain language dumbs down the content. They claim that long sentences and showy or technical words sound smarter and appear more professional. They're wrong.

Research shows that this type of writing only serves to decrease readability, which damages credibility. It comes off as not being open and transparent. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, a leader in research-based user experience, studies show that when people understand what you write, it makes you look smarter.

If the primary goal of an audit report is to convey information, what good does it do to make it any more complicated than it needs to be? If people are spending their mental energy trying to decipher your text, they are not listening to and absorbing the importance of what you are sharing.

One way to help you understand the readability of an audit report, or anything you are writing, is to use the readability statistics included in Word. On Windows PCs, hit F1 while Word is open and search for "readability" for instructions on how to turn this on (I'm sure other software has similar tools or you can search online).

The Flesch Reading Ease score measures how complex your text is. The lower the score, the more difficult your text is to read. So, you should be looking for a higher score. Scores in the 60–70 range are considered standard. Time magazine, for example, averages in the low 50s.

That said, here is an example of a typical "introduction" paragraph from an audit report (this was taken from an actual audit report with slight changes to protect anonymity):

The mission of the Internal Auditor's Office is to independently assess and report on company operations. The audit function is an essential element of accountability, and our audits provide the Board and management with independent and objective information regarding the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of operations. In accordance with the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018-19 Audit Work Plan, we have completed an audit of [topic]. This audit is a recurring audit on the Auditor's work plan. We conducted this audit in accordance with the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We limited our work to those areas specified in the "Audit Objective, Scope, and Methodology" section of this report.

My guess is that many of you reading this gave up part way through — and you are likely an auditor. Imagine how far someone who isn't an auditor would get. This paragraph alone has a readability score of 25. For reference, according to Wikipedia, the average score for the Harvard Law Review is in the low 30s. So, many audit departments expect their readers to invest more effort reading an audit report than law students using a highly technical research tool.

I spent a few minutes translating this paragraph into more simple text and took the liberty of eliminating portions that I felt were unnecessary or would be repeated somewhere else in the report:

Because we report to the Audit Committee, Internal Audit is independent from management. This allows us to fulfill our mission to independently assess and report on operations and provide objective feedback on how well goals are met.

The Audit Committee approves our annual plan. Per that plan, we completed an audit on [topic]. To ensure high quality audit work, we follow professional standards. The work we performed, in accordance with those standards, provides support for the conclusions shared in this report.

In a few minutes, this went from a score of 25 to 49. Not perfect, but it's much easier to read and understand. It also sounds more authentic.

You might choose to make different style and tone choices in the way you would rewrite this paragraph. However, the point is that by using plain language and simple sentences, the text becomes much easier to read and comprehend. Another great insight from Nielsen Norman Group's research — they've never heard any professional complain when text is easy to understand. I agree.

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