Auditors have a unique position in the company. You get to work with the audit customer to solve real problems, and then turn around and interact with the executives to report your findings. But sometimes such a vast change in audience can wreak havoc on your audit report.
Between your varied audiences and modern communication standards (dense information in few words), you have to make sure you’re writing to your end audience. Serving every audience in between will only dilute your report for your ultimate reader. It’s like trying to round up a rafter of small turkeys for Thanksgiving, when all you need is the one big turkey.
But who is your ultimate audience anyway? Is it the auditee, the manager, or the executive?
Survey says... probably all of them. As the audit evolves, so does your audience. And the kicker is, the final audience that receives the audit report is probably the audience you never even communicated with.
Below are three different audience types and their various needs. As you read, you might be creating your own list of your company’s audience needs that differ slightly from this list. But, it’s a good exercise to list your different audiences, write out what they need, and how you will communicate with each of them during the course of your audit.
Audience I: You, the auditor.
As the auditor, you and your team are your first audience. You need all documents, manuals, and items for testing. You need to know all the background and what and why it happened. You may be concerned with figuring out how to make sure the problem doesn’t recur, and you probably are trying to figure out how to communicate the plethora of knowledge you’ve gained throughout the audit.
In short, you are deeply entrenched in the issue. You know all the nuts and bolts of who did what and why. You have documents and numbers and charts and graphs. You have meetings and emails and conversations. You have it all.
But you can’t report on every single thing. If you did, you’d come across as a raging auditor. So, let’s not. You have to narrow it down.
If you stop here and write to Audience I, your audit report will look like the detailed instructions for how to plumb a kitchen faucet (all findings and graphs and observations) when all your reader wants to do is turn the faucet on (summarized evidence, possible root cause, overall business risk).
To write outside Audience I, summarize your charts and findings into a succinct sentence (under 30 words). Your final reader probably doesn’t need to be sidetracked with names and job titles either, so leave those out when possible. Your final audience WILL want final numbers and total tallies that can easily be stated in a sentence or two.
Audience II. Direct audit client and local management
Those who are part of, or closely related to, the audit issue will want to know specifics as well; however, they will probably not want all the specifics of Audience I. They’ll take the solid evidence you find. They will also want other items answered, such as
- What went wrong?
- Why did it go wrong?
- What evidence do you have to back up assertions?
- What do I need to do specifically to fix it?
As a bonus to you, sometimes the audit client wants to share (and contribute to the final audit report) justifications and further information behind why an issue happened.
Justifying findings to Audience II is a vortex that sucks in auditors and creates wordy findings. This news may be painful to bear, but Audience II is not your final audience.
Audience II and III have similar needs. Sometimes Audience II just wants more: more wording, more background, and more recommendations. Sometimes Audience II doesn’t agree or like the findings, so the Audience II version of “more” actually dilutes the issue and gives “less” impact. In some cases, further information may be required, but that’s a personal judgment call.
If you decide to write to Audience II, you will present a long report, full of information that could water down the meat of the report that you want Audience III to read.
As you communicate findings with Audience II, focus the discussions within your team and the audit client on root causes, business risks, and solutions.
When writing, stick to the facts and strive to communicate the facts more positively. Instead of focusing on findings (nouns), focus on what needs to be done to keep the issue alive and relevant (verbs). The example below presents the same issue written differently.
✗ The travel reports contained errors.
✓ The logistics manager did not check the report for errors.
The first sentence with an ✗ focuses on what was found (the noun), “travel reports.” The second sentence with a ✓ focuses on what needs to be done (a verb), “check... for errors.” It also introduces the “who” of the issue. Notice there are no specific names implicated, but your audience needs to know what position is responsible for the action.
Presenting findings in verbs instead of nouns breathes pragmatism into the issue.
You’ll probably still get pushback from Audience II, but no one can dispute facts. It’s a subtle art communicating facts in a nice way. With some fine-tuning to delivery and writing, anyone can improve.
Audience III: Regional management, executives, audit committee
Audience III is not concerned with specifics or reasons; they just want the facts. This audience needs overarching knowledge: quick synopsis of the issue, the issue’s importance, root cause if applicable, the risk to the company, and when and if the issue is getting resolved.
The problem is, often what Audience III so desperately wants, the audit report fails to deliver. Significant root cause analysis and thoughtful risk assessment can be difficult or time-consuming to assess and write. So the report settles for other verbiage in place of the specifics.
Think of a busy executive and what they need to know to maintain homeostasis in the company, and then write to just that. Audience III doesn’t want to plow through a long report; they want information that is easily available.
If the report is full of the wrong information (i.e., suggestions, extraneous evidence, too-detailed solutions, justifications, specific names), the report will be ineffective or go unread. Length isn’t necessarily bad – unless it’s poorly written. A poorly written report is difficult for your executive audience – or any other audience for that matter – to read.
As one reader mentioned, you need to consider your audience (their background, understanding, and culture). And an exercise to determine all of your audience types and their needs will go a long way in creating an effective audit report and making sure you tailor your communication to each audience throughout the audit.
For your company, develop your audience chart and define what each audience requires. Then take a look at a single audit issue.
- Attribute every sentence or portion of a sentence to the needs of Audience I, II, or III.
- Delete all sentences except for Audience III sentences.
The exercise sounds uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Maybe uncomfortable like the tryptophan hangover you get after a big Thanksgiving meal. Remember, there was never progress without a little discomfort. And only one turkey needed to be caught for dinner tonight.
Give your audience chart and report edit a try, and see how you like the final product.
Interested in learning more about this topic? Join Sarah Swanson for her upcoming Audit Report Writing Boot Camp.