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Writing Changes the World​​

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Last week, I had the chance to combine work with pleasure. I was invited to speak to the New York chapter of The IIA and any trip to New York is an excuse for my wife and I to try and see as many Broadway shows as possible. This trip was no different. The plays were everything we have come to expect, including an unusual and excellent adaptation of George Orwell's 1984.

But I'm not here to review Broadway plays, brag that I got to go to New York, comment on what 1984 has to say about our world today, or even discuss the topic of my presentation to the local chapter ("Auditing Social Media").

No, I want to share a single line that appeared very early in the play. As the protagonist contemplates his first entry into the famous journal, he says something to the effect of "Anyone who writes is trying to change the world." (Trust me, this is a total and complete misquote. With no way to make a quick note, all I could do was try and commit it to memory. You'll just have to trust that, while it may not be the exact words, it perfectly captures the sentiment.)

There are two important lessons internal auditors can take away from this experience and this quote. The first is that you should never, never, never, never, never, never, never go somewhere without a pen and piece of paper. Be prepared, because you can't know when you are going to need to record a fleeting thought that suddenly intrudes into your life. If I had been prepared, I would now be able to give you the exact quote.

Moments lost.

However, the second lesson is a whole lot more important.

Writing changes the world.

Every time you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or quill to papyrus there is the potential to make change. When you jot a note on a yellow sticky note it can make the difference between a fleeting thought and accomplishment of a task. When you take notes during a meeting it can make the difference between false memories and correct recall. When you put together the final audit report it can make the difference between "I thought you said" and "we all agree what needs to be done."

This may all seem a bit grandiose. ("I'm just putting together a shopping list; what is he talking about?") But, when you think about the history of the written word and how it changed culture, communication, and our ability to share information, you realize that we take for granted an incredibly potent power.

So, whether we know it or not, anytime we write we are effecting change. Sometimes it is small change (ensuring we get everything we need at the grocery store). And sometimes it is major change (Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the cathedral door). Okay, none of us (or so close to none that we may as well just accept the difference) are going to fundamentally change the world with what we write. But we should be aware of the impact that is possible.

When I write these blogs (and I will go out on a limb and say the same is true for my fellow bloggers), it is with the intent of trying to make a point — sometimes large; sometimes small — that I hope will make the reader's life better, easier, or changed.

And any time you write anything, you should understand that you will have a similar impact, making life better, easier, or changed. The most obvious example in the world of internal audit is the audit report. If we are not attempting to cause change, then why are we writing them? Even the clean audit report (effective; no issues identified; a really cool, hip, and happening process; whatever words you have chosen to provide an opinion) effects change. It changes the perception of others regarding the department under review, it reaffirms the understanding people have of operations, and it provides additional proof/support/verification that things are under control.

But beyond audit reports, think about the memos you write. What change do they cause (whether intended or not)?

And think about those emails you dash out without proofreading them. What potentially unintended change do they cause?

And think about that text you sent. ("Sup girl?") What will happen now?

We take our ability to communicate for granted. And it results in communications that often do not mean what we want to say. ("Nothin'. Sup with U?")

This is not a rant against the ever-more-quickly evolving ways we communicate — text, email, tweet, etc. I am not yet dinosaur enough to believe that these have destroyed communication. The messages and the need to communicate are the same; it is just the methods that have changed.

But what has not changed and what has not diminished is our need to recognize the impact our communications have. And writing (real or virtual) is one of the most powerful communication methods we have because the tangible record (even in the fleeting cyberworld) lends a gravitas to what we say — an importance we have to recognize and respect.

I believe Internal auditors, as in so many other areas, have a greater duty to recognize this power and think about how they use it.

Before you start your next report, think about what change you want to accomplish and what inadvertent change might occur. Before you write your next memo, think about why you are writing it in the first place. Before your next email, think about the recipients: What they will get from it? And then, no matter what approach you use — hard copy or cyberworld — don't just send it out. Take a second look and make sure it will have the impact for change that you want.

Anytime you write, you are trying to change the world. Treat that power with respect and make sure the change you are causing is the change you wish to occur.

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