Are You Setting Up Hurdles for the Reader?
Do you have time to read everything that comes across your desk and through your computer word for word? The majority of us would say no. I am a scanning reader. I try to glean the key take-aways from each document by reading titles, looking at pull quotes, and concentrating on the first sentences of paragraphs.
You need to do whatever it takes as a writer (and as a formatter) to make it easy for the reader to get to your core message. No one cares as much about what you have written as you do.
In the 1980s, 400 banking executives participated in a little experiment. These 400 executives were sent a routine three-page memo. (Another pre-email story… I’m so OLD!) In the middle of the second page, a sentence told them that they were entitled to a gift certificate. All they had to do is call to have it mailed to them.
How many executives got the gift certificate? Just 14 out of 400. And they don’t think it was because all of them read that far; they think just one guy read it and told his buddies.
Good writers tear down hurdles for readers. They try their hardest to make the text accessible and digestible.
How many hurdles are you making your reader jump over to get at your message?
Hurdle #1: Your Job Title
I assume that you are reading this because you are an auditor. Have you ever noticed that folks aren’t that interested in talking to you at parties? Do they always want to get a refill on their glass of punch soon after you tell them your occupation? Face it—we don’t exactly have a reputation for being exciting communicators.
Some audit shops approach auditing as they would a hunting expedition—being happy to bag the big findings. Audit shop cultures range from being “gotcha” auditors to “collaborative” auditors singing, “We are the world! We are the children!” And while some audit shops are always whacking the client over the head with a big stick, others have no teeth at all.
Your reputation for being a reasonable, concerned professional will help get your reports read. But, being unreasonable, self-aggrandizing, and unprofessional is a hurdle that even good writing won’t overcome.
Hurdle #2: How You Have Treated Your Reader in the Past
I’m also going to assume that you are reading this because you want to change the way you do things. You want your report and report process to be better.
If you have been abusing your reader by rambling on and on about stuff that no one cares about; if you have created ugly, unappealing formats for your documents; or if your reports have been too little, too late—you are going to have to shake things up quite a bit. You are going to have to show the reader that this is a new day and a new approach. And that may take creating a whole new audit report format: a new look and feel.
This will temporarily catch their attention and wipe the slate clean of your past mistreatments. Then you have to rebuild the rapport that you have lost and maintain it.
Once, I worked as a controller for a large organization. Right before I got the job, the organization had updated its general ledger software, and the transition was a mess. The IT department sent all the users massive memos explaining the glitches. And they seemed to send something every week.
Because I was new to the job and was still enthusiastic, I read everything that came into my mailbox, including these IT memos. After several months, I finally realized that no one was referring to them or discussing them. The memos never came up in our team meetings.
I asked Cindy, a co-worker, what she did with the memos. Cindy lied to me and said that she read them. Another colleague revealed the truth—everyone kept the memos in their filing cabinet in date order. If we ever had a problem, we would call IT, as usual, and IT would sometimes respond, “We told you about that in a memo dated October 17, 1992.”
From then on, I filed anything that the controller sent in my filing cabinet in date order. They could have written to tell me that my leave had been terminated, that my pension was cancelled, that my house was on fire, and I would have filed it. I no longer trusted them and no longer made the effort to read their stuff.
Hurdle #3: The Format
Are you still using Times Roman font, or a template for your report that was created sometime in the 80s? Time to put some lipstick on that pig!
Format is the last thing you do but the first thing the reader will notice.
Most mornings when I am on the road, over breakfast I can choose to read either the Wall Street Journal or USA Today. I feel that I should read the Wall Street Journal because I am a CPA, but I always pick up USA Today. I choose that paper because of the format: the color, the large font size, the titles, the pictures, and the graphics.
The Wall Street Journal’s articles are great, once I get over myself and actually read them. But the format is a hurdle that some mornings I don’t feel like jumping. The font is very small, the information is packed in, and the fabulous color they added to the front page about five years ago—as a nod to the needs of the reader for some visual help and cues and with much pomp and celebration—is BEIGE. Whee! Those Wall Street Journalists really know how to party!
Is it hard to create a USA Today look? Nope. Not at all. We will talk more about this later in the book, because just a little work on the format can make a big difference to the reader.
Hurdle #4: The Weight
Are your reports long? Some audit shops regularly create reports that are 20 or more pages. And, their executive summaries are four or more pages!
Some writers provide too much detail while others write like our teachers wanted us to write in high school. Neither of these options is productive in the business environment. We’ll actually cover this hurdle in greater detail later in this chapter.
Hurdle #5: The Title
Which one of these titles compels you to read a report?
- Report #279
- Report on Purchasing Regulations
- Report on Internal Controls over Purchasing Regulations
- Purchasing Regulations Audit Report
- Report: 7 out of 10 Purchasing Regulations Not Followed
It’s the last one, right? Think about newspapers again. The titles of newspaper articles are mini-sentences—with verbs and descriptors. I’m not coaching you to be sensational; I’m just encouraging you to use titles to draw readers in.
Hurdle #6: The First Paragraph
So, the harried and tired reader has jumped over all the previous hurdles. Whew! I wasn’t sure they were going to make it.
And now they get hit with the first paragraph—oh no! It covers the background information about the history of purchasing laws in the state of Maine. How boring can you get?
Please start your report with what the reader wants to know. Yes, they may need background. And if they need it, they can find it—in the back of the report.
Another common first paragraph is the scope of the examination: “We examined the purchasing records of the State of Maine from December 31, 2005, to December 31, 2006. . . .” Another horrible snoozer.
Unfortunately, auditing standards, especially AICPA auditing standards, seem to encourage us to start with the most boring stuff. “We followed auditing standards promulgated by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants . . ..” Blah, blah, blah. Yes, you do have to use that canned language somewhere. But no one ever said it had to be the first thing the reader sees! Maybe you’d be better off hiding it, or at least presenting it later.
Hurdle #7: The Logic/Organization
After helping the reader jump over all of the other hurdles, you need to keep the argument going in some sort of logical sequence.
One of the best ways to give your report a logical structure is to use the elements of a finding required by the GAO’s Yellow Book and recommended by the Institute of Internal Auditors in their International Professional Practices Framework.
Governmental auditors unite! Leita Hart-Fanta, CPA, CGFM, and CGAP is the author of “The Yellow Book Interpreted” and owner of Yellowbook-CPE.com a website devoted to training for governmental auditors. Whether you are an internal auditor or monitor for a government entity or a CPA doing grant audits, you will enjoy Leita’s humorous take on the complexity of auditing in the government environment.