Writing the right report
Learn how to craft an audit report which is clear, concise and useful, with advice from Sara I. James.
Any internal audit, risk or compliance specialist will sympathise with the struggle to produce a good report – one that is above all clear, concise and useful. But what do these terms mean, and how can we achieve them in our different roles and organisations? Some basic principles cut across all writing in English, whatever the setting, whatever the sector.
Clear means no vagueness, euphemism or jargon. This requires writers to have a clear idea of what they have done, how and why. Obvious, perhaps, but many gaps in fieldwork and documentation become apparent only at review stage – when it’s too late.
Be clear in your own mind about your message and its importance. Only then can you choose the fewest, best words to prompt your readers to action.
Clear writing is honest, credible writing. It requires skill and, above all, courage. Much of what we produce in reports is unwelcome news: inadequate or ineffective controls, cultural problems, regulatory headaches, poorly managed IT systems and the like. However, stating clearly what you found and why your reader should care is an essential, if possibly uncomfortable, step to improvement.
Consider the following example. I’ve often seen reports say things such as, ‘There is a perception of issues around resource.’ That probably sounds familiar to you, and so it should – it is typical corporate waffle, woolly and clichéd.
But what does it mean? I can think of three possibilities:
- There aren’t enough people to do the work.
- There are enough people, but they haven’t received training.
- There are enough people, and they’ve been trained, but they’re still incapable of doing the work.
Each interpretation requires a different response from managers. Hire more people; train the ones you have; or possibly replace the existing, trained, yet incompetent people with better staff. The original version (‘issues around resource’) leaves the reader no wiser as to what the root cause of the problem actually is.
One example of confusion caused by unclear or evasive language was in the Treasury Select Report about LIBOR. Certain organisations involved cited spoke of ‘issues’, others of ‘concerns’.
Different corporate cultures create their own vocabularies of euphemism – to some, an issue is more serious than a concern; to others, it is the opposite. And, as the report itself made clear, ‘Barclays appears to have regarded the points raised by Mr Sants as “issues” rather than “concerns”. On the basis of the evidence it is unclear whether Barclays “got the message”.’ 
Resisting corporate habit is hard. (Notice I don’t say ‘challenging’.) It’s hard because it requires a greater degree of research, attention to detail and persistence from the internal auditor in uncovering the problem. It’s also hard because some people fear that clear messages are rude.
Re-frame the ‘rudeness’ problem. A clear message actually saves your reader time and puts him or her in a better position to address gaps and failures. It also makes the organisation’s governance stronger, more transparent.
Culture matters. Countries, regions and people perceive clear communication differently. What is polite in one culture may seem unclear in another, and frankly evasive in a third. Conversely, what is open and honest in one culture may come across as direct in another, and openly rude in a third. Consider your audience, adapt your style – but remember that people the world over appreciate a concise, useful report.
Concise means only what is needed. Many organisations’ senior management and board receive three- to four-hundred-page reports monthly and quarterly. This volume of paperwork undermines good governance, as the human brain is simply not equal to ploughing through so much under pressure – much less taking critical decisions based on such reports. If you want to contribute to making your organisation better run, better informed and more successful, cut the verbiage. It impresses no one and actively hinders understanding.
One carefully chosen, precise word is better than masses of words shimmering coyly around the message. Your readers’ time is limited, their attention spans overloaded. Keeping your words few and judicious increases the chance people will read and act on your reports.
Concise writing is part of clear writing – each needs the other. Both lead, happily, to useful.
Useful means relevant. Make clear how your findings and recommendations link to the organisation’s objectives. Reports should not look like wordy compliance checklists – or worse, an exhaustive, detail-sodden narrative of everything you observed, thought, felt or dreamed during fieldwork.
It’s hard, after a lengthy internal audit engagement, to whittle down all you know to what your readers need to know. However, taking the time to do this means presenting something insightful. It also shows respect for the reader’s time constraints and other pressures of work – always helpful in building and maintaining good relationships.
The report format should be one that readers will find accessible and meaningful. This may mean using graphics – traffic lights, pie charts, tables – or even photographs. Don’t be constrained by what reports have always looked like in your organisation. Coupled with clear, concise writing that puts the data in context, fresh visual presentation can make your report stand out.
You could consider presenting your findings on a few well-chosen, uncrowded slides, then handing out a written report at the end. The very act of preparing your slides will force you to hone your message to the essentials. Again – clear, concise, useful.
If you are providing ‘integrated assurance’, discuss the importance of these criteria with the other assurance providers. You may be surprised – not only will the final report be better, but your working relations may well proceed more openly and efficiently.
Whatever the specific style in your team, function or organisation, the principles of good writing don’t change. Regardless of reviewer, line manager or company preference, a credible, sound organisation will always promote clear, concise, useful communications.
Sara I. James, PhD, CIA, is the owner of Getting Words to Work (www.saraijames.com) and a member of the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors.
 Fixing LIBOR: some preliminary findings (2012), p.70