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​Report Writing Is Communication

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Aug 27, 2019

In last week’s blog post, I discussed, among other things, that successful report writing is not so much about regurgitating facts as it is understanding the story that needs to be told. At least, that was one of the things I was trying to say.

As so often serendipitously happens, right after that post was let loose into the ether, I stumbled across this quote from author Keith Laumer: “The single most important thing a human being can do is establish mind-to-mind communications through speech and writing…”

You know what? I think that is a big part of what I was really trying to say.

Ultimately, all our memos and emails and meetings and interviews and discussions and revisions and review notes and rough-drafts, first-rough-drafts, second-rough-drafts, final-rough-drafts, second-final-rough-drafts, almost-the-real-final-drafts, and really-really-really-final-drafts-except-for-a-couple-of-things are all about accomplishing one thing, establishing mind-to-mind communication. We are trying to understand what our clients need, we are trying to pass the information we have learned back to those clients, and we are trying to obtain agreement (mind-to-mind) on how we can move forward toward success.

Which raises an interesting question. Why do we all attend (or force our auditors to attend) the unending multitude of training sessions related to the writing of reports?

(“What? Where did that one come from? We weren’t even talking about training?”)

(Hang in there with me. We'll get there.)

Internal audit seems to be on an eternal search, akin to the Conquistadors quest for the seven cities of gold, trying to find the answers to our biggest issues. How best to manage our time, measure our success, identify true root causes, proactively identify potential risks, etc., etc. (feel free to add your personal Cibola to this list); our objectives are always seemingly within our grasp, glistening just over the next hill, but never quite achieved.

But the one I hear most often — the most consistent “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope" — relates to writing effective audit reports.

So, floundering in the search for perfection, we all react the same way. Go to a lot of training; send our auditors to a lot of training; and constantly reexamine, retool, and recharge our audit report process and structure. And, while we occasionally obtain band-aids that stop some of the bleeding, the problem never seems to be solved.

And there is a very good reason for that failure. When trying to build a better report writing process, we are focusing on the wrong thing.

Those training sessions do a wonderful job of providing information about the craft, helping attendees understand things like structure, syntax, root cause, the five Cs, and, in the best courses, the role of the client. But, at the end of the day, they are still nothing more than craft. And, while you have to understand the craft in order to create the art, we never move beyond technique to understand how we can better achieve mind-to-mind communication.

(Allow me to throw myself under the same bus. I’ve provided and developed training. Yet, until I started putting this blog post together, I didn’t realize how all our training was misaligned, focusing on the craft and away from what really needs to get done.)

What we are missing in our report writing — where we fail to understand the breakdown in mind-to-mind communication — is that the cursory steps we take toward understanding our clients do not even begin to break through the mental barriers.

When I look back on the most effective reports I have written, they were delivered to the people I knew the best. Some were friends. Some were recent acquaintances I had gotten to know well. And some were just individuals with whom I had worked a long time. But the disasters, blow ups, and pure mediocrity seldom happened when I worked with these people. Generally, the most successful audits (and most successful audit reports) occurred when I worked with the people I knew best.

That ain’t no coincidence.

I knew them. I had built a rapport with them. As much as possible, I understood their positions and they understood mine. And success followed.

“Nice story,” you may be thinking, “but where am I supposed to find training for that particular intangible?”

Well, good news. It’s already out there. We just haven’t been paying attention. At least, we haven’t been paying attention to it in this manner.

And, because I’ve gone on quite a bit in trying to lay the foundation for this discussion, I’ll hold off on the rest of this until my next blog post. (With any luck, that will be Friday. But we’ll all have to wait and see.)

Until then, two letters that are seldom considered when talking about audit reports: E and Q.

See if you can guess where it goes from there.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

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