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​Let Me Tell You a Story

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Let me tell you a story.

One of the best compliments I ever got was for a report that was about as far from "normal" as an audit report could get. Yes, it had some facts and figures, and kind of an opinion and conclusions. But its primary focus was the anathema of all that is right and proper in internal audit — anecdotal evidence.

As I've mentioned before, the Farmers Insurance internal audit department used to audit 10% of the agents annually. Even in the leanest years, that was close to 1,000 audits. All these audits allowed us the opportunity to develop a great rapport with our marketing department, the agencies group, and even those agents and managers working in the field.

Because of that rapport, marketing came to internal audit for help. A new set of products had been introduced to the agents and marketing was getting mixed messages on how well it was being received. To get answers, they could have asked the State Executives or District Managers or Regional Zone Managers or Field Managers or Managers of the Field or Managers of the Field Who Managed the Field of Managers or any of the others that were part of the hierarchy that was agency operations. But they knew each of those would have their own slant — their own prejudices. They knew none of them could be objective.

(And, with that one word — one of the two defining traits that makes us different from anyone else in an organization — internal audit is allowed to shine like a city on the hill.)

Internal audit put together a consulting project where the auditors would go out in the field to see how things were going; how the new products were being received; and what might be changed, improved, or corrected.

Work completed; time to write the report. And we in the Phoenix office looked at what we had and realized this was a very different animal. We had tests and data available, but the actual meat of our findings was, for lack of a better term, soft-skill focused. We were trying to report on interviews that were comprised of the opinions of individual agents.

We knew standard report writing protocols were useless, so we used a different approach. We provided the results in categories related to the opinions — this was not being received well, this pricing seemed wrong, this was going gangbusters, perceptions were this, perceptions were thus, etc. — and in support we provided various anecdotes from our discussions with the agents. No names mentioned, no way to trace who might have said good or bad things; just stories that painted a picture of a project that was not going well and probably not going to succeed unless changes were made.

And then came the compliment. Everyone had struggled with the reporting and our CAE was not happy with what he was seeing. However, he liked what our office presented. In fact, he said it was exactly the kind of information he was looking for.

How could a bunch of stories have been information that was useful? Why did this work? How could it have worked?

We had used the individual stories to tell the bigger story. And story is power.

Story is how we gain attention. Story is how we keep listeners in their seats. Story is how people remember. TED Talk speakers thrive on stories. Politicians use stories about individuals to reinforce their points. The Disney leadership program is based on story. (Heck, 90% of Disney's success is based on story.)

When we wrote that report, the thing we accidently did correctly was tell a story. It was the story of how the new products were being received. And it was a story of how changes were needed if the new products were going to succeed. And that story was infinitely more powerful than anything we might have produced with mind-numbing numbers and internal audit rhetoric.

Okay. This was a consulting project. You can get away with a lot more in such situations. And I'm not going to stand here and say we ever tried anything like it again. But there is a basic truth here that still holds true.

Every report we issue is telling a story.

Is it wrong to throw in some anecdotes? Is it wrong to speak of people rather than numbers? Is it wrong to have the report tell a story of why an opinion exists? (Hint: Based on all of the above, these are rhetorical questions.)

And here is another point. When you are writing your report, you may know your opinion, you may know the issues, and I desperately hope you know the solutions. But do you know the story you are trying to tell?

I sincerely believe that, if internal auditors would start with what they are trying to say — to understand the story that needs to be told — the report would flow more easily from that story. That doesn't mean it has to have rising action, a climax, and denouement. And it doesn't mean it has to be full of anecdotes. But there needs to be a story underlying what is being said, a story so compelling that people will be moved to action.

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