​​Do You Understand the Words That Are Coming out of My Report?

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As I mentioned last Friday, an interesting question came up in response to my blog post about Elmore Leonard and the lessons we might be able to learn from all authors. A friend and former co-worker, Rick Neisser, asked me if I had come up with a "worthy report writing template." He went on to explain that, by this he meant one with just the facts – the bare facts – stated in such a way that management gets what it needs, and management knows what it needs to do. All this without having been hit by a ton of unreadable auditese.

The answer is "No". Any other questions out there?​

Okay – if I take this long to answer, I better come up with something a little more in depth.

Beyond the superficial answer provided above (which, while short, is accurate), the question raises some interesting points.

Here's the first: I am not sure there is any way a "template" can solve the problem of auditese.

In fact, even the most basic report format probably contains audit jargon. Think about yours. I am willing to bet it includes sections such as "Background", "Purpose", "Scope", "Opinion", "Issues", "Findings", etc. Now, step back, take off your auditor hat, and tell me what those words really mean.

The result is, before we even get started writing our reports, we fall into a minor "auditese" trap. (For those of you playing along, you can only get out of an auditese trap by rolling a 16 or better when you have a level 6 trap spring.)

I am not saying get rid of these words; they are foundational to our ability to express the message we have to deliver. But recognize we are requiring our customers to already have some basic understanding of what we are saying.

But we are not alone. In fact, no matter what profession you want to bring up, there is a certain amount of jargon that requires customers to have an understanding of the subject.

An example: Insurance professionals (you may recall I used to be one of those) talk about coverages and deductibles and liability and personal damage and other incomprehensible topics that, even after 30 years, I was never always sure I understood.

Okay, insurance is an arcane art practiced by wizards, warlocks, and witches whose incantations lead to loss payments that defy natural explanation. So, let's try a few others.

Talk to marketing and you hear about market shares and points and unaided consideration and B2B and integrated marketing and flying up flagpoles for saluting and sizzle in steak. Talk to customer service and you hear about service awareness and below-zero customers and user-generated content and customer self-service and loyalty measurement. Talk to business people and you hear about paradigms and synergies and bandwidth and key takeaways and balanced scorecards and [insert your favorite Dilbert phrase here].

And talk to just about anyone and you hear about value add.

You get the picture – everyone has their own "speak." So, it is only natural that auditors have ourown. And we will not, and should not, eliminate it all. That means our challenge is to listen closely to the words and phrases we are using. If we only use jargon at the right time, then it is appropriate. If we are using it to just show off that we are auditors, then we have a problem.

And perhaps more insidious, if we are using jargon just because we can't come up with any acceptable alternatives – if we are using it because we don't really understand what the words mean – then we are just spewing gobbledy-gook that means nothing to the customer and less to us.

No, a template cannot solve any of that. The only thing that solves inappropriate jargon is awareness and self-policing. Of course, good review work helps also, but I am a firm believer that the one thing successful report writing needs is less reviews. Get it right the first time.

But that is a different topic, and I've got a whole lot more to say on the subject of templates. Join me tomorrow – the gods of the internet willing and the bandwidth stays wide – when I'll get into the next interesting point.

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