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​Every Report is Telling a Story

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Let’s talk verisimilitude.

Recently, I heard an author being interviewed on NPR. As part of that interview, she read an excerpt from her new book. As she described animals and people getting off a boat after a long sea voyage, she included this phrase — “shook off the dust of six months at sea.”

As with anything that should give you pause and make you wonder, “What the…?” I will give you a moment.

The author was describing subjects that had been at sea for six months, subjects that had voyaged on a damp and sea-tossed boat, subjects that definitely had not arrived on a luxury liner (the context made that clear). And these subjects came off the boat covered with dust.

In nine words, I was out of the story. I no longer was seeing people and animals coming off a ship; instead, I was hearing someone say words that no longer coalesced into a believable universe. And no amount of work on the author’s part could drag me back.

That, folks, is what happens when verisimilitude — the appearance or semblance of truth, likelihood, or probability — is destroyed.

In literary circles, verisimilitude is the extent to which a text is believable, or the extent to which it imitates life. Even when stories exist in impossible worlds (e.g., science fiction), readers must be willing to "suspend disbelief" and accept that the story, within the universe that has been constructed, could actually occur.

The term often used in filmmaking is “suspension of disbelief.” In movies, even documentaries, what you are seeing is an interpretation of events, real or imagined. And it is the writers’, actors’, and directors’ jobs to ensure you continue to suspend your disbelief — to believe that what you are seeing is the real world. Without such suspension, a book is just squiggles on paper and a movie is nothing but images on celluloid.

And it doesn’t take much for the pact a writer or director has with the audience — that suspension of disbelief — to be shattered. For the author being interviewed on NPR, all it took was dust at the end of a sea voyage. In a movie, it can be a simple as a wristwatch being worn by an extra. (This actually happened in the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur.")

And it doesn’t take much for the pact we have with our clients to be similarly shattered.

The readers of our reports come in varying degrees of pickiness. (Woe unto the auditor who dangles a participle in front of a notoriously persnickety grammar geek.) But, no matter the particular peccadillos of any reader, we have to keep in mind that, when we are presenting a report, we are asking them to enter a world of our making — a world that is our interpretation of events, including our interpretation of how to make things better.

(Now, before you go all widdershins out there, I know that the report, when done correctly, represents a joint project that not only takes into account the work internal audit has done, but also the insights and perspectives of the clients. But, ultimately, it is our report and, therefore, our world — our story.)

That means we have to understand the things that will take any reader out of the moment — the things that will destroy the readers’ suspension of disbelief; the verisimilitude inherent in what is being written — and assiduously flense them from those reports.

Now, if you’ve read anything I’ve written about report writing, you know one of my pet peeves is spending too much time trying for perfection. So, understand, I am not trying to add another series of revisions, reviews, and rewrites to the audit process. Instead, what internal auditors have to understand — know almost instinctively — are the details, facts, opinions, grammatical faux pas, and various variations thereof that will pull the reader out of the story internal audit is telling and make those readers begin to question everything that is put before them.

You cannot spend foot pounds of energy fine-tooth-combing each report for each little thing. Instead, everyone within the department needs to develop a sixth sense for what will work.

And maybe that is the thing we have lost in all our report writing training, editing, writing, reviewing, second-guessing, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, the fact that report writing is not a science — not a fill-in-the-blanks approach to perfection. Instead, it is an art — the art of identifying the story that needs to be told and then bringing all the skills of our report-writing craft to bear towards making that art a reality.

And, just like the art of writing or movie-making, there is a story to tell. Much like the author or filmmaker, what we are doing is weaving a tale — a tale of risk, objectives, and success.

Maybe if we recognized the storytelling aspect of our reports, we might get more people to pay attention and, most importantly, care about what we have to say. It might lead to new approaches, it might lead to new structures, it might lead to a whole new understanding of what we are actually trying to achieve.

But, even if we stick with the tried and true background, purpose, scope, opinion, etc., etc., etc., we have to make sure we do nothing to allow the reader to step back, question what is going on, and, in the process, be drawn out of the story we are telling, the conclusions we are drawing, and the results we are selling.

Watch for the dust on the seafarers, be wary of the wrist watch on the centurion, and make sure the overlooked details in the report do not make the reader question everything else you have written.

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