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Mind of Jacka: Content Dictates Form

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Jan 18, 2023

In my last two posts, I discussed a couple of facets of report writing. In the first , I used the new chatbot, ChatGPT, to show that artificial intelligence is coming pretty darn close to issuing banal reports that look as banal as the banal reports we often banally produce in a…well…banal manner. In the second, I talked about how easily we fall into the trap of using technology to get work done without thinking about how we can actually do better work with that newfound time.

But there is still more we might glean from watching an AI potentially do the work we are currently doing. In fact, there is probably a lot we might learn, but let’s stick with one idea for now.

This last couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat. (I hope I didn’t strip your gears with that transition. I warned you to get the warrantee, as well as the undercoating.) The book is a collection of lyrics from the first half of his career, and in it, he discusses his lyrics, as well as the lyrics of other Broadway lyricists, and how those various lyrics work or do not work. On page xv (prominently displayed on the first page and paragraph of the Preface, right after a “Note to the Reader” and a “Cast of Characters”), he provides what he believes to be the only three principles necessary for a lyric writer. The first:

“Content Dictates Form”

And I’ll stop there because that is all we need to worry about right now.

We internal auditors love form; we love structure; we love templates; we love to have everything lined up just so. One reason we find ourselves caught up in this fatal attraction is that a basic concept of our profession is the use of systematic approaches. Important, no doubt. Yet it is those systematic approaches that have caused many of us to rely on those systems at the expense of the quality of our work and the achievement of the work’s objectives.

And, with that, let us return to the world of report writing. This obsession with structure is why so many of our reports fail. (And why an AI can write something that looks exactly like what we write.) We are sacrificing content to fit form.

Here’s an exercise for any report you want to write. First, what is the one thing you want to say? Can you articulate what you want to express in one sentence — one not-too-rambling, I-don’t-have-to-fit-everything-in-it sentence? Once you have that one thing, then you know what the report is about.

Next, think about anything else readers might really care about. Does this include a background, purpose, or scope? If you think those are critical, then you are missing the boat. The real answer is complicated (the needs of various readers result in different answers) but think in terms of what additional information might be necessary to convey that original message to those various readers. Now write a single paragraph. Not a run-on paragraph that takes up two pages, but a paragraph that expands that primary thesis to provide more context for what the various readers might want to know. (Okay, I’m feeling magnanimous — use two paragraphs.)

And at that point, you are done. Why do we write any more than that?

Oh yeah, the standards. Well, you and I both know that a one-paragraph report probably isn’t going to cut it. But once you understand what you want/need to say, everything else will fall into place. The important thing is to not let that place — the one everything else falls into — be a structure, template, or form that hinders the delivery of the content.

Content dictates form, not the other way around.

(And looking at that phrase again, literally as I’m typing, I realize there is a lot of power in the word “dictate.” Let’s not go into it now. However, for extra credit, ruminate over the concept as you try to sleep in the wee hours of the night.)

But the writing of reports isn’t the end of this story. What about all the other audit work we do in which we let form contort the content? Example 1: Focusing so single-sightedly on the test that you don’t look at the data you’re gathering. Example 2: Letting the audit program dictate the content to the point where anything that hints at pushing the edges of the scope dies before it has a chance to show its value. Example 3: Interviewing clients in a way that considers what the auditor wants to know, not what the audit client wants to say.

And, for our fourth example, let’s look more broadly. When you hire someone new into the department, are you looking for the best person, or are you looking for someone who fits the square-peg hole that currently exists?

A coworker was putting together a new department within internal audit. She knew the specific job titles and the specific work that needed to be done. When she posted the jobs, she followed the human resources requirements — job descriptions, salary grades, etc. However, when it came time to interview, the last thing on her mind were those descriptions and the specific holes that needed to be filled. Instead she spoke to people about their abilities and strengths in ways that didn’t necessarily relate to internal audit. She then hired the two best applicants for the job — the ones with the best skills. She then fit the department around their skills, not the other way around. She allowed content to dictate form.

And, yes, putting together a new department allows different freedoms than when hiring in an established department. But why shouldn’t it still be true that hiring the best beats hiring someone to fill a slot?

The craft of auditing requires a firm understanding of systematic approaches. And so, I am not advocating throwing all the babies out with the various baths. I am only suggesting that the blinders are on us so tightly we can, no longer see the race we are running. (I think these metaphors got mangled, but you know what I mean. And, besides, I’m on a roll.)

And so, we wind up with reports that an AI could write. We ask for templates and fill-in-the-blanks reports (see my last post) to ensure we have the form correct. And, in the service of form, we destroy our ability to provide the appropriate content.

And now a coda. Looking back at these three posts, I was trying to make some connection among them using ChatGPT as the catalyst. I’m not sure I pulled it off. So, let’s recap.

  1.  The bots are coming. AI and the associated programs will, if we don’t start using our brains, do the same work we do. Not good work, just work.
  2. We use technology to make life easier but do not look for how to make it better. While this is a fatal flaw in all humanity, we have to be better than most, looking for how to use the extra time automation has provided to find more value in the work we do.
  3. Do not be a slave to the structure; the structure should be your slave. When it comes to reports, templates are a wonderful thing, but don’t force your work to fit them. Make those structures do your bidding. And let that apply to everything you do. The minute you find yourself sacrificing any aspect of your work so it “fits,” step back and destroy the mold.

Finally, a few of you may be wondering about the rest of Sondheim’s three principles. Here’s what he had to say.

“…to be inscribed in stone.
Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God Is in the Details
all in the service of…

I think that does a pretty good job of wrapping up what we all need to remember when it comes to report writing. In fact, what we need to remember to effectively accomplish anything.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.