Performance audit reports are not exactly fun to read. Face it, no one cares as much about what you wrote as you do. And that is why you have to make it soooooo easy for a reader to get to your message that they can hardly resist reading more.
Obviously, you have to start with a solid argument and a logical structure (for more on that, see this blog post). Once you feel confident that your writing is well organized, it is time to make sure you can answer each of the following questions affirmatively:
- Is it KIBBLE-Y?
Turn your text into little, digestible, bite-sized chunks of information (like puppy kibble).
Do not overwhelm your reader with long, fat paragraphs that stretch from side-to-side on the page with no subtitles to break up the monotony! Don’t scrunch your tiny text up into as small a space as possible. Scary!
Think of how you read… you don’t read every word, do you? Nobody got time for that. Instead, you scan. Write like you know that.
- Is the entire audit report as brief as possible?
Some audit teams limit their entire report to three pages. Yes, the whole thing. How refreshing. How readable. And yes, how difficult to synthesize your message into so few pages.
But do you really think your audience is reading your 60-page opus? No, they aren’t. You, I am afraid, are the only one who has read every word.
In my experience, auditors who pridefully show off their technical prowess with complicated and lengthy texts often obscure the main points of the report and lose the reader.
As Thomas Jefferson, our genius founding father, said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
- Are the sentences short?
How would a bureaucrat say, “The dog is black.”? A bureaucrat would take that simple sentence and make it sound more ‘official’ by saying, “The canine-persuasion creature appears to be of a darker hue than the feline-persuasion creature residing in the same abode.” Ridiculous.
If you can say it simply, do! You won’t look stupid, you will look as if you care about the reader and they will appreciate it and, therefore, keep reading.
- Are line lengths short?
If your text wraps from side-to-side on a page, it is much less readable and scannable than text that only takes up a portion of the width of the page.
See how the text in this newsletter is in a narrow column instead of taking up the whole width of the page? That simple formatting trick (used by newspapers and magazines) helped draw you in, and thankfully, you are still reading this.
- Did you avoid referring to yourself?
Some audit reports start with “We conducted our audit…”. “We found…”, “Aren’t we just wonderful?” We, we, we!
Instead of referring to yourself, get to the point! The focus should be on the content of the audit report and on the reader, not on ourselves and all the hard work we did. Obviously we were there. Obviously we did an audit.
You may be able to cut out several sentences per finding and whole paragraphs out of your performance audit report if you stop talking about yourself.
- Are acronyms eliminated?
Acronyms are created because someone doesn’t want to make the effort to say or write the whole title. But, boy, are acronyms unfriendly! Only an elite few can say or read them with ease.
One cure is to just write the whole title out each time. If it stresses you out just to think about doing that, you can create the original text using the acronym and then use ‘word replace’ in your word processing software to put the whole title in later.
Another cure is to substitute a sniglet of words in place of the whole title as follows:
The University of Texas at Austin (the University)
Uniform Statewide Accounting System (Accounting System)
- Is inflammatory or loaded language eliminated?
The words “poor”, “weak”, “inadequate”, “failed”, etc. should be avoided. These are judgments and can add an inflammatory tone to your report. How do you like being called a poor, weak, inadequate failure? Didn’t think you did!
- Are the words “internal control” or “controls” avoided?
Usually, when I see the words ‘internal controls’ used, I know that the auditor is skirting the real issue. I also have to wonder if the auditor really appreciates what they are saying because the COSO model divides controls up into 5 components, 17 principles, and 82 points of focus! Holy cow.
Most readers are not versed in internal controls. And if you care to reach most readers, you’d better avoid technical jargon.
I joke that my sister, who is an artist, thinks that internal controls are a vitamin! But if you get specific and tell my sister that the same person collects, records, and deposits cash, she will understand the gravity of the situation.
- Are points quantified to describe the impact of the issue?
Put dollar amounts and other numbers in your report to let readers know if the issues in the performance audit report are significant or minor.
For example, let’s say you are complaining that the auditee doesn’t perform cash reconciliations. In order to give the reader a better idea of what is going on, you can quantify the:
Error: checks have bounced costing the entity $250 in bank fees
Issue: the bank account processes 400 transactions a month and averages a balance of $1M
Area: the bank account tracks disbursements of the entity’s largest grant, the Peters Grant. The Peters Grant distributes $150 million dollars to sub-recipients each year.
So, try making these simple fixes, and maybe someone will be excited about reading your report.
OK, the word ‘excited’ is a little far fetched. How about hoping that someone with the power to influence change scans it and says something like, “Wow, that seems like an important issue! We should do something about that.” That is what we performance auditors live for, right?
Want to learn more about making your performance audit report readable? Check out the self-study course, Audit Reports: Yellow Book Style