Hurdles we set up for the reader
Please enjoy this excerpt from the upcoming self-study from Yellowbook-CPE.com entitled "The Art of the Finding"
February 24, 2011
The Art of the Finding
In this course, we are going to review what I have termed “the art of a finding.” The process begins by following a standard set of guidelines. If you are following Yellow Book standards (generally accepted government auditing standards) or the Institute of Internal Auditor’s red book (International Professional Practices Framework), you are going to use what is called “the elements of a finding” to build your argument. If you’re following AICPA standards, you are not required to follow these standards, but I still recommend their use.
One of the most useful and brilliant aspects of the government auditing standards (the Yellow Book) is their requirement that you build your argument using elements. You describe the problem and tell the reader why it matters, why it happened, and how you know it is a problem. Then you describe the criteria and make a recommendation. Rather than just presenting the problem and hoping someone acts on it, you persuade them to change.
When I first started working as an editor for a state legislative auditor, our audit reports were being ignored by the legislature: our primary client who paid our salaries! We would work months, sometimes even full quarters, creating these massive detailed audit reports. And we would receive no response, either negative or positive, from the legislature.
As I began to edit the reports, I found that it was not poor grammar that caused our reports to be buried under a stack of other audit reports. The reports were disjointed, disorganized, and shared too much information. The auditors were not sifting and sorting; they were not thinking of their audience. They were just sharing everything they knew. Hence, our readers wouldn’t read what we had written. We had offended them with mass amounts of boring material and provided them with a series of mental roadblocks to reading the hidden important information.
Hurdles Readers Must Overcome
Let’s look at the mental blocks that must be broken down before people are willing to read an audit report.
Hurdle: Job title
The first hurdle is your job title. Auditors are stereotyped as boring or people to be feared. Mentioning at a party that you are an auditor scares others and drives them to the punch bowl for a refill! The challenge here is to get the reader past who we are so that they are open to reading what we write. We must convince the reader that we will not mistreat them again. We’ve done a bad job of communicating with them in the past. But now we are going to shake things up and change the way we write our reports so that we can grab their attention again and then do our best not to lose it!
The format of a document is one of the first and easiest changes to implement. If you had a copy of the Wall Street Journal in one hand and a copy of USA Today in the other, which paper would you read first? USA Today is eye candy with color, big compelling titles and graphics that provide instant information. The Wall Street Journal is flat and boring by comparison. Our audit reports need to look appealing. Set up a new template that updates the font style and adds white spaces or line breaks; in general, make the format pleasing to the eye.
Next is to assess the weight of the document and reduce the amount of information it contains. The most innovative audit report writers no longer write super-detailed reports. Twitter and two-minute podcasts are the communication modes of the generation with whom you are trying to communicate. Thirty-some things want their information in sound bites, not in enormous lengthy documents. Any document longer than four pages is intimidating. Chances are that they won’t read through to the second page unless you capture their attention in the first paragraph.
The legislative auditor I mentioned earlier knows how to communicate succinctly with the legislature now. They send out e-mails that “tease” the reader into clicking a link for more information. “We have just conducted an audit of the Lottery. We found that the jackpots are incorrectly calculated. Do you care to know more? Click here.” The reader then has a choice as to whether they want to find out more information or delete the e-mail.
The link leads to two additional paragraphs, and yet another link leads to the full report. Reduce the weight of your document into little digestible chunks of information that can be absorbed quickly and painlessly. Cut back to the essence of your message.
Hurdle: Boring titles
Titles are road maps or signs that let readers scan the major points of the document and find what they need as fast as possible. Titles can be one word, but the reader will better understand a title that is a “sniglet” of a sentence, letting the reader know what they’re about to read. A ‘sniglet’ contains a verb and is almost a full sentence, short a few modifiers and punctuation, much like a newspaper headline – but not as always as sensational! Titles enable a reader to scan the document to make a choice as to whether to read a certain section or skip it. The title should convey the essence of what you want the reader to learn in that particular section.
Hurdle: The first paragraph
The first paragraph should tell the reader what they want to know. It should reiterate the title by expanding upon the subject matter. Tell people what they want to know in the very first line of the first paragraph. Don’t bury your point in the third or fourth sentence. The reader will not make it that far. The very first line of whatever you write should summarize what you want the reader to take away, because that’s probably as far as most of your readers are going to get.
Hurdle: Messy logic and structure
The last of the hurdles upon which auditors must work to improve is the logic and structure of the audit report itself. Commonly, audit reports ramble on and contained voluminous, unorganized information. The readers cannot follow or understand the information provided. And that means that our audit results are ignored or misunderstood.
Later in the course, this issue will be addressed in detail, along with how to slim down the weight of the audit, how to create compelling interesting titles, and how to create a first paragraph that grabs the reader’s attention. By using the elements of a finding we will compose a logical, organized, compelling, and convincing finding.
When we are at our best
Our ultimate goal as auditors is to persuade people to change their behavior. I believe that our best auditors are change agents. We find a risk that the client currently is tolerating, and we ask them, “Are you willing to tolerate this risk?” If they want to resolve the risk, we help them do so.
We report the risk up the chain of governance and make problems transparent.
And when we bring problems into the light, we often achieve accountability and elicit change. One of the most important things we can do is make a solid recommendation. When we do so, we provide the client with an implementable plan that resolves the risk.