By Andy Kovacs
(2-Minute Read)

The two words ‘inform’ and ‘communicate are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different actions.
Informing is giving out, communicating is getting through.

— Sydney J. Harris

The Audit Report Empathy Problem

Would you want to like to take advice from someone who doesn’t understand you, care about you or show any interest in what you want?

No, neither would I!

But unfortunately, most of the audit reports which we review at ELC Consultants (while designing Audit Report Writing learning programmes for our corporate clients) come across as borderline psychopathic.

My purpose is to open your eyes to the psychology of your process owner when they first read your audit reports

There’s zero empathy.

They don’t speak the reader’s language.

They show no understanding of the psychology and emotional state of the process owner.

So why would anyone want to take the advice they contain (no matter how true or important it may be)?

You may think I’m spoiling for a fight; but my purpose here is not to criticize you and make you feel bad. My purpose is to open your eyes to the psychology of your process owner when they first read your audit report; because I believe this is the first step in being able to write a high-impact and engaging text which gets you what you want by getting their commitment and buy-in.

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

A Philosophical Thought Experiment

I want you to think of someone who you really love (don’t read on till you’ve done this).

Now imagine that you’re at your desk on a busy weekday afternoon trying to finish and urgent task.

Suddenly, your phone rings.

On answering, the caller says this:

Good afternoon. This is police constable Barry Jones. I’m calling in connection with a person who I understand you know very well …

They’re referring to the person who’s name you have just thought of.

What would be the first question you would ask?

“What’s the problem?”

If the first question which you would ask is not synonymous with the one above, you can stop reading now. I’m really not the guy to help you.

If it is, read on.

This philosophical thought experiment was framed by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University; and one of the world’s leading experts on decision-making. Here’s what she has to say about it.

We cannot stand unresolved situations. We need closure.
So psychologically we are driven to ask questions, so we can
understand and close the related topic.

— Ellen Langer

Professor Langer showed that such examples of unexpected communication can frequently trigger an Acute Stress Response in the recipient. We have all experienced Acute Stress Responses, but let’s look at the biological effects (which are largely out of our control):

  1. We perceive a threat in our immediate environment;
  2. Our Amygdala (commonly known as the Lizard Brain) triggers;
  3. The adrenal chemical Epinephrine is released into our bloodstream;
  4. Our blood sugar increases (so our muscles can get a quick source of energy);
  5. We shake (so blood can reach our extremities faster);
  6. Our heart-rate increases (to send extra blood to our body);
  7. We blush (due to increased blood flow);
  8. Our breathing rate increases (to oxygenate our increased blood flow).

Why does this happen?

The Function of the Amygdala: Our Natural Survival Mechanism

It’s all about survival. Our Amygdala keeps us safe. When we perceive a threat –  whether it be a spider in our bath or an audit report in our inbox which may be criticizing the work which we do – it makes us react.

We go into physical mode so that we can get out of the way of danger.

But while our Amygdala is triggering, we lose our ability to think clearly or rationally.

It’s important to recognize that this is exactly what happens when your process owner receives your audit report. In the philosophical thought experiment:

  • The disturbing telephone call is your audit report;
  • The police constable is you – the Internal Auditor who wrote it;
  • The loved one is their job.

This is the psychology of your process owner when they receive your audit report . They can’t think as clearly and as rationally as they normally can – they just want to get out of the way of danger!

So STOP Writing Psychopathic Audit Reports!

You’re never going to be able to write an audit report with high impact and engagement while you’re doing things like this:

  • Using audit terminology which the process owner doesn’t understand (or care about);
  • Failing to explain the meaning of acronyms and the purpose of the systems you’re writing about;
  • Writing paragraph-long sentences which over elaborate your findings (and make you sound self-important);
  • Shoe-horning numbers in to over-prove the impact dimension and which makes your report become too result focused (at the expense of your relationship with the process owner);
  • Writing only about what’s important to you (while failing to recognize what’s important to them).

When your process owner receives your audit report, an Acute Stress Response will be triggered.

There are 3 things which they want to know:

  1. Did I pass? (Opinion and Grading)
  2. What’s wrong? (Audit Findings)
  3. What do I need to do about it? (Recommendations)

Cut the self-indulgent crap – and tell them!

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