If you ask internal auditors why they write audit reports, some might answer that it's to communicate an engagement's objectives, scope, and results. Others might offer that it's to describe what the auditors found and to make recommendations for improvement. But the ultimate objective of internal audit reporting is not to describe what we found or to make recommendations for improvement. It is to persuade readers to take action.
Impact is imperative, but not all internal auditors realize the difference that writing style can make to ensure corrective action is complete and timely. The content of a report informs readers, but I would argue that writing style is what motivates. For example, when the U.S. Army tested two versions of a business message asking readers to perform a specific task, those who received a well-written, "high impact" letter were twice as likely to comply with the memo on the day they received it.
During my career as an internal auditor, I wrote or edited hundreds of internal audit reports — some that were good, and some that could have used another round of edits. Following are some recommendations that can help ensure your audit reports are effective — that they will not only change minds but that they will create a call to action that gets results.
1. Keep It Short
If you've taken a look at the Justice Department inspector general's (IG's) report on how federal officials handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state, you'll see it is strikingly different from the average internal audit report. It contains more than a quarter-million words, and the recommendations don't start until about page 500.
I am not opining on the report's findings or the politics still swirling around it. As a former IG, I can appreciate the need for detail. The scope of the review was daunting, the issues were complex, and every aspect of the engagement was surrounded by controversy. But it's always important to keep the readers in mind, and the style that works for a major IG investigation probably would be inappropriate for your internal audit department. Trying (and failing) to read the IG report in a single evening reminded me of the words of the great Winston Churchill, who said, "This report by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read."
The lessons for internal auditors: (1) Internal audit reports are most persuasive when they are tailored to our stakeholders' needs; and (2) if we overwhelm our readers with too much information, our reports will have less impact. If a word, idea, or sentence does not contribute directly to the point, consider eliminating it.
2. Keep It Simple
The best internal audit reports express big ideas in small words, never small ideas in big words. Our writing is most persuasive when we use clear, direct, and familiar language. This does not mean "dumbing down" our reports; it does means clear and effective communication — the opposite of legalese. As I stated in a previous blog post, Ten Things Not to Say in an Internal Audit Report, if it sounds impressive, you probably need a rewrite.
There is compelling evidence that plain language is more likely to be read, understood, and heeded in much less time. In 1989, the U.S. Navy conducted a study of officers who read business memos written either in plain English or in a bureaucratic style. Officers who read the plain memo:
- Had significantly higher comprehension.
- Took 17 percent to 23 percent less time to read the memo.
- Felt less need to reread the memo.
Many internal auditors use tools such as the Flesch Reading Ease or Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests to determine whether their reports are readable. Those tests are available online at no cost, or if you prepare your reports using Microsoft Word, you can choose to display information about reading level when you finish checking the spelling and grammar.
The lesson for internal auditors: There's a reason you rarely see bureaucratic language or legalese in marketing materials: Plain language sells ideas better. Even if all of your stakeholders are capable of reading and understanding a doctoral dissertation, that doesn't mean they will want to. Your writing is more likely to be persuasive if it is not pompous, unnecessarily complicated, or loaded with technical jargon.
3. Make Your Best Ideas Stand Out
We need to make it easy for busy executives to read, absorb, and act on the results of our work. Keeping things short and simple can help, but we also must organize our reports to make the most important ideas stand out.
Message-style headings, subheadings, and call-out boxes can bring attention to the most important information in your report. Don't hesitate to use examples, tables, color, charts, or pictures to clarify and add emphasis to important issues. Also consider using an executive summary, table of contents, and/or index to help the reader easily find information in your report. For longer reports, an executive summary is essential.
The lesson for internal auditors: Different stakeholders have different needs, so we need to help individual readers access the specific information they need. Our writing won't be persuasive if key messages are lost in the details.
4. Don't Neglect the Basics
Ever received a resume or business proposal that contained spelling or grammatical errors? You probably thought twice about seriously considering the individual or company that sent it. The same goes for your audit report. If it contains misspellings or incorrect grammar or punctuation, readers may get the impression that you are not detail-oriented or, worse, careful about your work. Even a single error can adversely impact your credibility. It may not be fair, but if your report contains errors (careless or otherwise), your well-reasoned arguments may fall flat.
The lesson for internal auditors: Pay attention to details. It's difficult to be persuasive if you lose your credibility because you ignored the basics.
5. Consider the Implications
We all try to be unbiased, but sometimes we overlook the implication of our words. If we want readers to buy into our ideas, our tone needs to be objective — even when we deliver a negative message.
In Clarity, Impact, Speed: Delivering Audit Reports That Matter, my good friend Sally Cutler offers the following examples of writing that, from management's perspective, might seem unnecessarily biased or negative:
Biased and More Negative:
-The unit was unable to produce documentation to demonstrate compliance with the policy.
-When questioned, managers gave conflicting explanations of the vendor-verification process.
Unbiased and More Positive:
-Documentation was not available to demonstrate compliance with the policy.
-The managers had differing interpretations of the vendor-verification process.
The lesson for internal auditors: We rarely persuade by making someone feel hostile or defensive. If our report seems biased or unfair, the client is likely to tune us out.
6. Remember the Five C's
An IIA seminar, Audit Report Writing, describes five important components of observations and recommendations:
- Criteria (what should be).
- Condition (the current state).
- Cause (the reason for the difference).
- Consequence (effect).
- Corrective action plans/recommendations.
Even if you use the five C's, your report might not be persuasive. But without the five C's, your odds of success will plummet. Your description of potential consequences is particularly important: One well-written is the "so what?" that nudges management toward action. It indicates who will benefit, how they will benefit, and why. Often, persuasiveness is enhanced if consequences are described in business-oriented terms, with measurable elements and specific time frames. If money, safety, or program integrity are at stake, for example, you should say so.
Those are some of my tips for making internal audit reports more persuasive, but you may have other suggestions. I welcome your thoughts.