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Persuading Internal Audit Clients Just Got Harder

Blogs Richard F. Chambers, CIA, QIAL, CGAP, CCSA, CRMA Jul 06, 2020

There's an old expression — "when everyone shouts, no one listens" — that certainly rings true today.

From politics to social media and even in grocery store aisles as much of the world still battles COVID-19, the prevailing approach to discourse is to shout down or vilify those who disagree.

It seems to me that the art of persuasion has fallen out of favor to confrontation. But as internal auditors know well, to effect positive change in our organizations, we must make those on the receiving end of our recommendations and reports open, comfortable, and amenable to what we have to say. 

Put another way, to be agents of change, internal auditors must embrace the art of persuasion. I wrote about the importance of persuasion in the chapter on "Dynamic Communicators" in my second book, Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors, a few years ago. The lessons remain relevant today. We do not enhance value until management implements our recommendations and they produce a desired outcome. And that won't happen without effective communication.

Persuasion doesn't require flashy eloquence, an arcane vocabulary, or a dramatic presentation. It's actually fairly simple: Phrase your recommendations in ways that incentivize listeners to embrace them, because doing so will make them more successful. But it's also not just a matter of phrasing. There must be sincerity behind your words. You must truly want to help and be sincerely interested in making the audited area or enterprise better.

I have found that one good approach is to position your message in terms of risk. For example, if the audit reveals an outdated policy on how to evaluate potential contractors, internal auditors must convey the risks that could arise if the policy isn't kept current. A focus on risk eliminates finger-wagging and, instead, directs attention to how mitigating the risk will make the area more effective and efficient. That, in turn, can elevate shareholder value. 

Good managers will almost always respond to opportunities to improve their area and the company. I should note, too, that self-preservation will instinctively cause their ears to perk up when risk is being discussed.

From my experience, persuasion is more easily accomplished through direct conversations with management, rather than through written communication. It is during the course of an audit and "exit" or "wrap-up" meeting that we have the greatest opportunity to persuade. Don't underestimate the power of human interaction in effecting action.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, with limited opportunities for face-to-face interactions, influencing decisions by those we audit has gotten more difficult. When we do deal directly with our clients, it is often through far less personal platforms, such as Zoom, WebEx, or GoToMeeting. We may still see their faces and hear their thoughts and reactions, but the technology creates a barrier.

As I was doing research for this blog and a video I recently posted, I came upon some excellent advice for overcoming COVID-shrouded communications by an organization called Thrive Global. In an unsigned blog titled "The Art of Persuasion While You Are Working From Home," several valuable tips were presented for being persuasive on impersonal videoconferencing platforms.

  1. Listen. What matters to most others, in life or in an audit, is that you are really listening to what they have to say. This is different from "hearing," which is involuntary. Listening means you are actively engaged and consciously considering and reflecting upon what is being communicated. Thrive Global's advice here is that, to better retain important information, take notes and take advantage of a pause in the discussion to recap what you've heard.
  2. Mirror. Here, the blog suggests trying to match your body language to that of others on the videoconference call. It builds comfort and rapport, but avoid being too obvious or you'll come across possibly as mocking. The blog offered this bonus tip: Look into the camera on or hanging over the top of your computer screen. This way, you are creating eye contact and not looking like you're working on something else (not that THAT would ever happen in these meetings, of course).
  3. Match. Similar to "mirroring" body language, the volume and pitch of your voice should align with the volume and pitch of those on the other end of the call. That doesn't mean shouting if they are speaking loudly, but it could mean regulating the speed of your delivery to match theirs or quieting your voice somewhat if they are soft-spoken.
  4. Avoid Distractions or Distracting Others. It happens without fail. The bird starts tweeting in the other room or a dog lets out a distant but noticeable bark. What's even worse, and again we've all experienced this, meeting participants will start "multitasking." Note the lighting on their face as they scan their email or do other tasks on their computer. The advice here is, pay attention to others if you want them to pay attention to you, don noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, and do whatever else it takes to decrease background noise and create a "connection" between you and the screen that will help you hold your audience's attention — and respect for what you have to say.
  5. Focus. Focus. Focus. Enough said. Don't be rifling for information, multitasking like those in point 4, and ending up not hearing the make-or-break question or insight from your client. Be prepared, stay focused, and act as if the person on the other side really is just inches away. To be persuasive, you must engage and be engaged.

Successful techniques for effective persuasion are well-known and have been taught for centuries. They impart a bit of salesmanship, some evangelism, and even arm-twisting. But effective communication is more than just bringing out your inner used-car salesman. Indeed, it requires a disciplined and intellectually honest approach to our work.

In almost 45 years in the internal audit profession, clients have disagreed with my findings and recommendations on many occasions — sometimes vehemently. I found it most productive to take the time to step back and genuinely consider their points of view, and to even compromise when I found value in what they had to say.

As the Thrive Global blog noted, "The art of persuasion is different, and the same, when you're working from home and persuading over Zoom or your videoconferencing tool of choice. It's different because you're not physically there. It's the same because persuasion is about your words, your body language, and your attention. The art of persuasion is the art of effecting change, and effecting positive change is the ultimate goal in our profession."

As always, I welcome your comments.

Richard F. Chambers, CIA, QIAL, CGAP, CCSA, CRMA

Former president and CEO of The IIA, the global professional association and standard-setting body for internal auditors.