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​Do the Pieces Support the Whole?

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Why do internal auditors write audit reports?

That question will get you a lot of different answers: communicate what has occurred, show what was examined, document results, provide a basis for client/auditor discussion, provide a basis for client/auditor agreement, provide a basis for client/auditor arguments, provide assurance, follow the standards, drive the auditor crazy with reviews and rewrites that delay the report longer than the release of the final novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. But one answer seems to pop up most often; persuade the reader to take action. The consensus is that reports should communicate a drive to action.

If this is the true purpose of the internal audit report (and join us in the next week or so for some thoughts on that one), then we all need to take a long, hard look at what we are writing because, in general, our reports are dry as dust, not even compelling the reader to actually read the report, let alone take action. The words, sentences, and paragraphs in most reports just exist, doing little more than listing data, thoughts, stuff, and things in the forlorn hope that the reader will slog through the Sargasso Sea of dreck and be persuaded. There is no call to action. In fact, there is little action at all.

Ain't it funny how that word action keeps popping up? I used it a lot in the prior two paragraphs. And, as noted above, it pervades internal auditors' discussions on the subject. And that's a wonderful thing. Persuading the reader is a high and worthy calling. But interesting questions arise from such pronouncements. First of which, do we even know what action we want the reader to take?

When we say, "persuade to action," is that action to complete the corrective action? Or is it to build a better process? Or is it to make a more successful department? Or have we ever really thought about what action we are discussing? For most of us, the knee-jerk answer is that we want action taken to correct identified issues. But, as we start to think about those broader answers – a better process, a more successful department – we realize that there may be loftier goals we are trying to achieve. And we have to wonder if we might need to take a broader look at the "action" we are looking for.

And from all this springs the scariest question. If we haven't really thought about what action we are looking for, then how can we expect purposeful action to be taken?

But let's pretend we know what action we mean. Because the point I really want to raise here relates to the content of our reports. Specifically, how do the contents of our reports support and drive such action. Does every paragraph/sentence/word have a role in supporting that purpose? Does every detail help communicate a drive to action?

Take the time to think about what you are writing. How does a paragraph work to actually drive action? How do the sentences within support the paragraph and the associated action? How do the phrases provide support? How do the words provide support? How does every detail support that call to action?

As internal auditors, we tend to fall back on tried-and-true phrasings – the cliches of our profession, the buzzwords, the time-tested terminology we think says something but may be meaningless to the readers. Or, even if the readers are in on it, they've seen it so many times that sentences about risk, mitigation, and control lull them to sleep quicker than … well, there are few things that will lull people to sleep quicker than an audit report.

Look closely at the words you are using. Do they mean anything to the reader? Do they really mean anything to you? Would the report be the same (or probably better) if some just disappeared? Or might a search for a new, more energetic, more meaningful way to express the concepts actually bring life to the report and incite more action from the reader?

And, when I say "look closely," I am not exaggerating for effect. It is worth the time to fully understand the nuts, bolts, nails, and punctuation that make up our reports. Come back next time and I'll show you what I mean as I take a deep dive into one sentence almost every one of us has written.

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