I've said it before; I'll say it again. You should be visiting Seth Godin's blog every single day. He is often considered to be a marketing person, but he has just as much to say to internal auditors as anyone.
Saturday, he posted a short, four-line, 72-word comment about writing titled "But That's Not What I Meant." I could try to provide a synopsis, but I've already used up 75 words just writing these introductory paragraphs. Instead, just go read it.
*The writer pauses and enjoys a cup of coffee while the readers go off to be enlightened by Seth's post.*
Okay, welcome back. There is a lot of great information buried within what Seth has written. And I want to deconstruct it, particularly how it applies to internal audit. Warning: I'm going to use a whole lot more than 72 words. In fact, I'm probably going to have to split this into two separate posts. But, as I say, there is a lot packed into his comments. And there is a lot that internal auditors need to pay attention to.
I know you already read it, but let's start with his first statements:
"There's no more urgent reason to write. It keeps you from insisting that people read your mind, understand your gestures, and generally guess what you meant."
In a recent post, my fellow blogger Norman Marks noted, "Most internal auditors do not realize that the Standards … do not specify [the results of the engagement] conclude with a formal, written audit report." Which instantly brings up the question, "Why bother?"
There's a lot of good answers to that question (some included in Norman's post), but I think Seth's comments bring up one that is often overlooked. You go into a meeting and have a great conversation. You know exactly what you mean. You are convinced that the client knows what you mean. And you are even convinced that you know exactly what the client is saying. So, the meeting comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Everyone is happy, hands are shaken all around, and all depart with the confidence that successful communication has occurred.
Quick show of hands: How many of you have gained the client's agreement at the conclusion of a meeting, only to have it unravel when the client saw the actual words in print? Come on, be honest. Personally, I am raising my hands, my feet, my wife's hands, my wife's feet, the dog's paws, the table's legs, the clock's hands …
I guess what I'm saying is that I cannot count the number of times this has happened. And I'm guessing your experience is the same.
This does not mean the auditor was trying to sneak something past the client; this does not mean the client was agreeing in order to get the auditor out of the office. It just means that verbal communication is not as precise as written communication.
When we put it in writing, we are no longer asking someone to read our minds, no longer making inferences from gestures, and no longer assuming that what we are saying matches what someone else thinks.
The written word, as with any communication, can be imprecise. And it may not say exactly what we mean it to say. But in writing, the communication is on record, and there can be no doubt what has actually been said.
There are a lot of reasons we write reports, but one of the big ones is to make sure that what we said is what was understood, and to ensure that what we heard is what they meant.
Let's get together again in the next day or so, and we'll look at the rest of Seth's post. And we'll talk about the need to get our thoughts together before we even try writing a report.