By Andy Kovacs
(3-Minute Read)

The secret to being boring is to tell everything.

– Voltaire

 The Executive Summary Boredom Problem

If you were to ask most people how they would like to feel in their day-to-day lives, I’m sure that you would not find many who told you they wanted to feel bored. That includes the reader’s of the Executive Summary of your audit reports.

However, the Executive Summary section of most audit reports is boring. And this is a big problem.

If you don’t engage your reader from sentence one of your Executive Summary, then they won’t read it; and your value will be nullified

Boredom is a feeling which we always try to avoid.

When a film bores us, we change channels.

When a presentation bores us, we drift off.

When a person bores us, we cross the street to get away from them.

If the Executive Summary of your audit report bores your readers, they will not read it.

Nevertheless, I believe that there is a deeper problem here – it’s that auditors who write boring Executive Summaries don’t even realise that they’re doing this.

So here’s a philosophical thought experiment which will help to bring this into clearer perspective.

A Philosophical Thought Experiment

Imagine that you’ve been to a doctor for a routine check-up. It’s now a month later, and your doctor has called you to his office to give you his summary.

You take your seat, and your doctor starts by saying this:

According to my appointment schedule, I performed a check-up on you, my patient, on 26th March 2018.

The doctor then goes on to list (in no small detail!) all of the biological areas which they looked at, along with key areas which they could have looked at in the check-up but decided not to.

Next, the doctor goes on to comprehensively list how the examination was conducted from a physician’s perspective, i.e. the specific medical approaches and techniques which they used (the run-of-the-mill ones as well as the handful of interesting and innovative ones).

By now, they’re a quarter of the way through the summary.

Question 1:

How would you feel by now?

Question 2:

If they had a lengthy and detailed report to share with you after this summary, how motivated would you be to read it?

[Exit … stage left]

So, what has this got to do with Executive Summaries?

Sentence One: The “Death” Sentence

This philosophical thought experiment illustrates the typical mistake which most auditors make when writing the Executive Summary of their audit reports.

To begin with, they kill their reader’s interest stone dead with the very first sentence (before incinerating the remnants of their readers’ interest and patience by the time they’re a quarter of the way through).

Let’s begin with sentence one – the “death sentence”, here’s a typical example from the pile of reports which I currently have on my desk:

As announced in December 2017, Internal Audit has performed a review of HR in ACME Technology UK and Ireland.

What does this actually tell your reader?

“I have a schedule …”

And

“I did my audit according to my schedule.”

Your reader knows this – they were there! Your reader is either:

  • An Executive Team member who approved your audit plan
  • Or the process owner who had to deal with a freaked-out team and sleepless nights worrying about the health of their business during the audit fieldwork

Sadly, “death sentences” like this are the norm. Here’s another for good measure (I could give 100 – I won’t!):

Internal Audit conducted a review of the commercial agreements in ACME Technology France (“Company”) from 26th February to 26th March 2018.

The first sentence of your audit report (or any written text!) is the most important. If you can’t engage the reader’s interest here and make an impact, there’s no way that they’re going to follow you through all the details and difficulties which you’ll go on to write-up later on.

Be honest! How much reader-engagement and impact do you think these 2 self-centered, (me)-communication examples above will hook?

What comes next in the reader’s journey through an audit report’s Executive Summary?

Paragraph 1: The Executioner of the Reader’s Interest

This is not an actual Executive Summary sub-heading, but it might as well be. The actual sub-heading frequently used is:

Scope

This is where the auditor lists all the things they  looked at during their fieldwork.

Although I agree that it’s vitally important to give this information (in the right place in the audit report!), this section invariably ends up being self-indulgent naval-gazing. Here are a couple of examples (from the beggar’s banquet I have to choose from):

Commercial transactions were analysed with the objective of providing reasonable assurance to the management and the Audit Committee.

That’s your job!

Audit work was conducted assuming that the information provided by the process owner and their team was reliable, accurate and complete.

“I beg your pardon!”, barks the process owner!

So, now the first sub-section is complete, and there’s still nothing to engage the reader!

What comes next?

Paragraph 2: The Nail -in-the-Coffin of the Reader’s Patience

Again, not an actual Executive Summary sub-heading. I’m referring to this sub-section:

Approach

A write up of how you did your audit (in painful detail, in most cases).

Examples:

The audit was conducted by a subject-matter expert.

Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry, then!

During the audit, relevant documents were referred to.

When would you not do this during your audit fieldwork?

During the audit, we performed interviews with the process owner and their team.

REALLY! You’re telling your reader that you “talked to people” in order to get information?

During the audit, we performed process walk-throughs.

Once again – that’s your job! You’re a process and risk expert. It’s like telling them that brick layers lay bricks, the Pope’s a Catholic and bears …

At this point, we’re a  quarter of the length through the average Executive Summary; but I would suspect  most readers are already done!

A Healthier Approach for Reader Impact and Engagement

You cannot bore people into buying your product – you can only interest them in buying it.

– David Ogilvy

I’m obviously not telling you that you shouldn’t tell the reader when you performed your audit (the issue date is on the front cover of the audit report!); nor am I telling you to eliminate the Scope or Approach sub-sections. However, I am telling you they should only contain essential information to contextualizes your report’s findings for the reader (Scope) and which explains unique, innovative and interesting ways in which you performed your fieldwork (Approach).

I would also recommend that the best place for this information is not at the beginning of the Executive Summary where all of your energy should be going into engaging your readers’ interest, making an impact, and proving that reading your report is a valuable use of their limited time.

Let’s go back to the doctor’s surgery.

You’ve been called to get the results of your check-up; and as you sit there – with white  knuckles from the stress of it all – there are just 3 things which you desperately want to know:

  1. Am I OK, doctor? (Opinion and Grading)
  2. What problems did you find? (Summary of Key Findings)
  3. What’s cure? (Summary of Management Actions)

I’m absolutely certain that you want to be a valuable asset to your organisation. But you cannot make your reader read and remember what you’ve written just by writing “Audit Report” on the front cover.

If you don’t engage your reader, make a positive impact and show the value of reading your audit report (from sentence one of your Executive Summary), then they won’t read it; and your value will be nullified.

P.S. Excuse the 2 classic rock album references! 

ELC Consultants is a global training and consultancy company which has been creating bespoke learning programmes to empower the communication of internal auditors in clients like Vodafone, ING, Dexia and BNP Paribas since 2005. If you’d like a digital copy of our Audit Communication Catalogue with information about our tailormade Audit Report Writing and Empowered Audit Conversations learning programmes, drop us a line on hello@elcconsultants.co.uk