In an old folk tale, Chicken Little is a chicken that believes the world is coming to an end. The prominent phrase from the story, “The sky is falling!” has become a common idiom representing the mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. Folk tales are successful because they describe human nature. We all have had Chicken Little experiences where we erroneously believe that the sky is falling.
Even in auditing, auditors can write “Chicken Little” issues, where the issue comes across as more severe than it really is.
When every issue is communicated with the sky-is-falling mentality, then the more significant issues lose impact.
Tone is the subtle art of using words to evoke the intended emotion. In the past, audit reports were written with a “gotcha” slant and carried a tone of brutal honesty. But brutal honesty wasn’t always effective. Internal auditors wanted to inspire change, yet the audit reports were accomplishing the opposite. So the tone of audit reports had to evolve with the changing business environment.
By improving the tone of the audit report, auditors maintained – if not, increased – the integrity of findings and developed better relationships with their clients. Rather than brutal honesty, auditors became humanely honest.
Paying attention to tone doesn’t mean you have to tiptoe around audit issues. Considering tone just means that you control the level of emotion by selecting and using the right words.
Below are four strategies to improve tone in your audit reports.
Look at the connotation of words
In writing, words take on either a connotation or a denotation. Denotation just means the definition of a word. Denotation carries little interpretation. Examples of denotation include prepositions (e.g., of, in, over, for), definite articles (the, a), and to-be verbs (am, is, are). There’s nothing emotional about the word “of.”
But other words carry subtle emotional meanings, or connotations. Words like love, hate, failure, success, and shame are words that evoke an emotional connotation for the reader.
In audit report writing, words can have subtle or drastic connotations. For example, the following two sentences carry different connotations.
✓ Employees were unaware of the new HIPAA guidelines.
✗ Employees failed to understand the new HIPAA guidelines.
Although the sentences communicate the same information, the connotations behind unaware and failed are very different. If employees were only unaware, redemption is possible for employees to become aware. However, there’s finality to the word fail that inspires little change. Thus, the first sentence carries a more positive connotation (and tone) than the second sentence.
Stay away from “fighting words”
There are some words that you should probably never use. These words make a reader emotionally defensive. If your reader becomes defensive, then you’ve lost your reader and will probably spend more time than you’d like trying to talk your reader down from the ledge. So, for your sanity – and your manager and everyone else’s sanity – stay away from words like failure, ignorance, negligence, lied, stole, and a slew of other words.
When tempted to use a fighting word like failed, try a less malicious word (e.g., forgot), and then use your synonym finder to get to the right word (e.g., overlooked).
Don’t get a black eye from your reader just because you used a fighting word, when a less offensive word would have sufficed. Choose your word battles wisely.
Use the precise word
The words you choose will control tone for the reader so use the most correct word you can find. Your synonym finder is your best friend to finding the correct verb, adverb, or adjective that will successfully enhance the issue.
The better command you have over your language, the more accurate your tone can become. The tone subtly changes when a “really, big, huge house” becomes a “mansion.” Subtle changes add up to large differences in the way your audience receives an issue.
You can be more specific with broad or confusing words. Below are a few examples of confusing words that, with attention to detail, can become solid descriptive words that contribute to a better overall tone of a sentence.
daily, monthly, promptly, occasionally
legal, documented, accepted, systematic
detailed, consistent, specific, assigned
Communicate positive and negative information
As an unspoken rule, the trajectory of tone in the paragraph begins with the first sentence or idea. If the first sentence communicates a positive idea, then the paragraph will carry a positive tone. If you begin an issue, a paragraph, or a sentence as negative, the idea will likely be predominantly negative. You may notice the same phenomenon in your writing. Below are two versions of the same issue, where Version A starts with the negative (red) and ends with the positive (green). Version B is the inverse, presenting positive information first.
Sample A (negative tone): The warehouse was negligent in key safety items. Thermometers were missing in 2 out of 3 rooms. Also, the fire extinguisher was poorly located in the far corner of the warehouse. However, the exit doors were securely locked and the security system was working. (30 negative to 13 positive)
Sample B (positive tone): The warehouse has improved security measures. Exit doors are securely locked and the security system with cameras is newly installed. As a result, theft is at an all-time low for the warehouse. However, safety items need improvement. Thermometers are missing in 2 of 3 rooms and the fire extinguisher is in a difficult place to access. (32 positive to 24 negative)
If you’re wondering which issue is the correct issue, that’s up to you. As the writer, you get to manage how positive and negative information are communicated.
More significant issues will focus on the findings (i.e., the negative information). But when the business shows improvement, or models best practices, then you focus on the positive information. Both negative and positive information are helpful in audit reporting.
Since audit reports deliver “bad news” most of the time, the tone of the writing is important in delivering messages. Keeping the tone both objective and in line with the issue’s severity will maintain the integrity of the finding, the report, and the audit department.
That way, if the sky really is falling, people will take notice and do something.
Let’s keep the conversation going: what strategies do you use to improve tone in your writing?
Interesting in learning more about similar topics? Check out one of our upcoming seminars, or take one of Sarah's upcoming training sessions on audit report writing found here. Jill Schiefelbein will also be speaking at our upcoming SuperStrategies Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.