Internal auditors do not always come into the profession knowing how to write well. That is the reason there have been years and years of articles, conference sessions, and review approaches on writing clearly. Many of these instructional vehicles cover things such as minimizing passive voice, keeping it short, writing with the audience in mind, and many other guidelines for writing. Mostly, the coaching is on writing reports; rarely on working papers.
Most of this is standard fare from the viewpoint of the mechanics of writing: what to write and how to write. What if there was an alternate perceptive that would transform an internal auditor's written and spoken communication? What if there was a way to think, act, and communicate differently from how everyone else thinks, acts, and communicates?
It would be transformational through the influence of “why.”
I believe that using the influence of “why” changes the way we write and the content of our writing. I also contend that the purpose of our working papers and our reports is not to regurgitate what the client is doing and how they are doing it but to tell why they do it. In other words, using the influence of “why” has the sole purpose of telling the client’s story.
A decade or so back in my 33 years as an internal auditor, I discovered the influence of “why” and how using storytelling characteristics produced remarkable results. I found that great auditors and great audit shops follow a similar pattern of thinking, acting, and communicating. In addition, it was just the opposite of the way I thought, acted, and communicated. When I changed, my audit writing--both working papers and reports--became more useful to my clients. It was powerful.
A speaker on leadership named Simon Sinek codified this approach a few years back in what he calls the “golden circle.” This idea explains that we usually communicate by telling what we do and sometimes how we do it and that very few people know why they do what they do. He says that we generally think from the clearest thing to the least clear, from the easiest to the hardest to explain and that starting with “why” transforms the conversation.
That is where storytelling comes in. Storytelling allows the writer to tell why the client does what they do, to tell their purpose, the succinctly convey their cause, and their reason for being. It helps to solicit and relay why they exist.
As auditors, we quite often think that saying what our clients do and how they do it and making recommendations to change those things will change our client’s behavior. However, our message is flatly uninspiring, and our clients can quickly turn down our request to change. By using the influence of “why” and simply reversing the order of giving out information, it changes how people will think of the auditor’s information. People are not inspired to change when we regurgitate what they do or how they do it; they already know that. However, inspiration can come when we address the why they do it.
I have spent time explaining “why” so I can get to this important aspect: that when we shortchange the source and means of writing working papers and reports, we shortchange our effectiveness as change agents in our organizations.
Auditing is more than just another fearful word. A good audit, done and communicated well, brings order and clarity to the potential chaos of an organization’s processes, data, or controls. The auditor can be more effective in discovering and explaining why things are done by explicitly telling the client’s story.
Audits have the great potential to summon forth meaning where there was once confusion; communicate complex concepts in relatable terms; and elevate a solid argument on a well-worn subject into a compelling, inspirational address. It is easy to forget facts whether simple or complex, and people repeat stories.
In this sense, every auditor, regardless of their industry and the nature of their work content, should be an audit story strategist because all content is communication and storytelling is the most potent form of communication that exists.
Telling our client’s story gives them some powerful takeaways:
- A good audit story will automatically make our message more relatable, compelling, and memorable—because we are all hardwired to want to understand the world in this way.
- Audit stories are not just something that our audiences are open to experiencing within our content—they are something that we are all, every single human being, literally programmed to want and need.
- Our audiences need stories. By making storytelling a significant part of our audit content strategy, we are tapping into that primal need and helping the audit stakeholders understand something a little bit better.
A good starting point for unearthing those opportunities is to add storytelling as an audit content evaluation criteria when it comes to auditing and analyzing content. If we agree that storytelling is a hugely influential factor in our content’s success, we need to weigh up criteria such as accuracy, clarity, and usability. This starts with the work papers because that is the source of all client-focused material used in reports.
Some suggested questions to help evaluate our audit’s storytelling value (work papers and reports):
- How well is this content communicating its intended message and purpose by speaking to emotions, not just logic, in a way that reduces storytelling clutter?
- Is the tone of voice warm, informal, and addressing the user directly in 1st person, or corporate, formal, and speaking from the point of view of the organization? The auditor must determine which tone is best for the audience.
- How does the writing present calls to action? Do they follow professional standards with relatable benefits and risks that make obvious how the client will solve a real problem? Does the presentation contain matter of fact features that make sense to the organization?
- How much clutter is in your text? Is there anything that does not support the objective of both working papers and reports? Relieving the text of unsupported material will also relieve the auditor and the reader of caring about things that do not matter (working paper reviewer and client).
- What mix of content formats is being used to share these experiences—text, images, video, or audio? Are they the most appropriate for the context?
- Would metaphors, diagrams, images, or data visualizations make the subject of this content more vivid to the reader and included to tell “the story behind the facts?”
- Are highly technical, complex, or scientific concepts being broken down into easily understood ideas by using analogy and metaphor?
We can summarize these questions and pull them together into three core elements of audit storytelling in context:
- Emotionally appealing communication that makes content more compelling.
- The inclusion of real experiences to which users can relate.
- The application of metaphor, images, and visualizations to make concepts more vivid.
If your audits have more data than process, use data-centric storytelling. That is, tell the story behind the numbers and their significance. Merely reporting numbers will not lead to the emotional connection needed for people to take action if that is the desired response.
Learning to tell stories powered by data will transform your data meetings from one-way conversations to highly interactive, action-focused sessions. Data-centric storytelling is not a mission for more data but a process focused on helping professionals use the data they have to drive interactive dialogues that lead to action and results.
Here are some characteristics of an excellent audit story starting with the working papers and flowing through to the report:
• Draws you in
• Keeps your interest
• Relates to your client
• Uses appropriate language
• Presents a call to action (sometimes)
As with storytelling, audit communications that are complete should evoke a response and multiple-meaning with a possibility for action. The drivers of the audit story may make all the difference between which calls for action succeed and which do not.
- A story interests the reader with something they can relate to; it finds a way to make readers care about the meaning behind the story.
- A story focuses on a clear, well-defined event or a series of related events.
- A story develops events, people, and time/place.
- A story puts events in a clear order.
- A story describes rather than informs; shows the reader something happening rather than telling that it occurred.
- A story uses a clear point of view.
- A story has a takeaway.
- A story provides structure to the storyteller’s data.
- Stories sometimes take risks to take the reader out of their comfort zone.
Here is a quote that, for me, tells it all: “If you wish to influence an individual or a group to embrace a particular value in their daily lives, tell them a compelling story.” (Annette Simmons, Public Speaker, Trainer, and Author of The Story Factor).
Simple stories are strong stories. They take everything out that does not serve the narrative. All the strength is in simplicity. All weakness is in complexity.
Therefore, I ask you:
A. What if your audit clients found both you and your work compelling? How would that change the very fabric of your job?
B. What if you compellingly wrote your working papers? How would that change the reviewer’s perspective and interaction with your conclusions?
C. What if you wrote your reports that compelled the audit client to change? How would that change the way your clients responded to your recommendations?
If you could do these things, your written and oral work would be compelling, transformational, and powerful!