Writing an effective writing report.

Why do so many audit reports fail to achieve results? The main problem stems from the fact that, all too often, reports focus on the writer instead of the reader. Audience consideration is vital when it comes writing a robust, useful audit report.

Read on for practical advice for keeping your audience your central focus, and for writing tools and strategies that will help ensure an effective audit report.

The problem

When I teach my Effective Business Writing for Auditors class, I start out with a simple activity whereby groups of students write a 12-word ad for the classified section of a newspaper. After each team presents its ad, I ask the non-presenting students if they would respond favorably to the ad in question. Typically, the answer is no. A quick examination of why produces a laundry list of reasons and reveals that the ad failed because it was written from the writer’s point of view instead of the reader’s.

Many people in the business world write solely from their own point of view. Such a singular perspective results in a narrow focus. Audit reports written strictly from such a viewpoint only achieve results if a reader happens to share that very narrow perspective.

A successful audit report considers a panoramic perspective that encompasses, speaks to, and reaches a wider audience than is possible via a document written based on a singular point of view.

A well-written document:

  • Considers the subject from the audience’s perspective.
  • Offers clarity about the purpose or intended outcome.
  • Uses an organizational structure that facilitates easy reading.
  • Explains terminology or jargon that is unfamiliar to the reader.
  • Takes the reader’s knowledge of the subject (limited or otherwise) into account.

Most people write the way they think, presenting a finding and recommendation, for example, in the following order:

  • Background of the problem
  • Analyzed alternatives
  • Recommended solution

How the problem impacts the reader often isn’t apparent until the end of the document. Why should they care about an auditor’s recommendations? What risk does not following the recommendations expose them to?

Bear in mind, studies show that the average time a reader initially spends with something in the written form is 3-5 seconds. The reader wants to determine as soon as possible if they care or not about what’s being said. So how can you produce an audit report that reaches your audience quickly and effectively?

A solution - Mind mapping

To achieve excellent results when writing audit reports, the writer must focus on the audience and must clearly state the document’s purpose up front. Since most people write the way they think, it makes sense for writers to organize their thoughts related to audience and purpose before drafting a document. A handy tool to accomplish this is a simple mind map.

A mind map is a visual brainstorming tool that I employ to help guarantee an effective audit report. When teaching this concept in class, I use the example of mind mapping a finding and recommendation (F&R). We start with four sheets of paper taped to the wall. The sheets are labeled Desired Result/Purpose, Audience, Context and Content. We engage in a series of brainstorming activities around these headings and capture:

  • Desired Result/Purpose: The purpose of the document.
  • Audience: Audience concerns to consider. Examples include recent turnover, new processes, new employees, significant change, etc.
  • Context: Criteria related to the final layout of the F&R. Examples include: using bullets for important information, writing one page only, incorporating lots of white space, considering visual appeal, etc.) 
  • Content: The contents of the F&R.

The resulting mind map provides a visual from which the F&R can be written based on the audience’s perspective instead of the writer’s point of view.

Transparent structure equals effective structure

Many writers use an organizational structure that hinders ease of reading. Nothing, for example, is more boring than wading through a sea of block text that begins on the left hand margin and continues to the right, page after page with no visual break other than space between paragraphs. 

Not only do the eyes tire of such “block space” text, but this method of conveying ideas and information leaves the reader clueless as to the organizing principles underlying the text. In effect, the reader is forced to uncover the hidden structure of the document and hunt for the important information. Remember the 3-5 second rule. Most readers won’t struggle through an ocean of text searching for answers.

White space is of paramount importance when it comes to engaging and holding the reader’s attention. The writer should also take advantage of word processing tools that facilitate different:

  • Formats
  • Fonts
  • Graphics

I call this transparent structure, because the use of formatting tools such as bullets, for example, helps create organizational structures that make information transparent to the reader. The result is a document that is visually appealing, and allows the reader to easily find important information. An audit report produced in such a manner:

  • Grabs and maintains a reader’s attention
  • Directs a reader toward what is most important
  • Creates a more professional visual impression
  • Helps achieve a desired result

Finding and recommendations – Focus on “what” questions

When auditors write audit reports that include findings and recommendations (F&Rs), they need to ensure the final document contains and clarifies all components of a well-written F&R. They must address and explain the following items:

  • Condition (What is the problem?)
  • Criterion (What policy or best practice can be adopted?)
  • Cause (What led to the problem?)
  • Effect (What is the risk?)
  • Recommendation (What should be done?)

Thinking of the above elements as a series of “What” questions is invaluable when it comes to producing an audience- versus a writer-centered audit report. If the writer has not answered all of these questions, the desired result is often not achieved.

To elaborate, the “Condition” is the control weakness identified by the auditor. The “Criteria” is typically a policy or best practice that can be cited as the expected way of doing things.  The “Cause” is the underlying reason for the control weakness. The “Effect” is the risk. The “Recommendation” is the solution to the problem. The recommendation should always address the root cause of the issue. However, the auditor should always sell the recommendation based on the effect (i.e., the risk).

Have you ever gone to a doctor who only addresses the condition, but not the cause of an illness? Such doctors may give patients pills to treat the problem, but they don’t tell them why they have the problem. Well-written audit reports provide recommendations that explain the root cause of the problem, thus helping to ensure the condition will not recur in future.

Risk statement

Well-written audit reports are delivered so that the risk statement (effect) sells the recommendation to the reader. Too often, auditors try to sell their recommendations with the criteria statements. A chief auditor once told me that too many auditors are just a bunch of “checkers.” They only check for compliance with some policy or other but are unable to articulate why the policy exists. In other words, they are unable to state the underlying risk related to the control.

For example, such “checker” auditors may go to a business partner and say, “You are not reconciling your accounts.” The business partner may say they don’t have time or they don’t care about reconciling. Too often, the auditors may respond, “Don’t you know there is a policy that requires you to reconcile?” Instead, they should say, “Here’s the risk you run if you don’t reconcile” (i.e., they deliver a risk statement).

Focus on the macro issues

Audit reports must get results. To achieve this, the focus must be on the reader, not the writer. It’s the macro issues that often cause the micro issues. Macro issues relate to lack of focus and clarity related to audience and purpose. Micro issues relate to grammar. I always say, “Fix the macro, and you will fix 90 percent of the micro.”