By Dr. Kevin Dungey
(3,232 words = approx. 16-minute reading time)
CHAPTER 1: Understanding Usefulness and Readability
While auditors and audit teams must always strive to make reports accurate, objective, and timely, audit reports must finally be useful and highly readable. A useful report presents busy decision makers with instrumental knowledge that helps them make important operational decisions.
Therefore, a useful report
· focuses on important issues (areas of actual or likely risk),
· develops well focused objectives that respond to the issue,
· answers the reporting objectives directly with its findings,
· supports the findings by developing the relevant elements of a finding (criteria, condition, cause, and effect),
· provides sufficient and appropriate evidence that has been gathered through a sound methodology, and
· delivers helpful recommendations to address the root cause of any problem found.
A readable report is accessible. It has a clear, well-organized, well-supported message that is formatted on the page (the word page as we use it refers to either a printed page or an electronic page) so that busy readers can find information they need quickly and easily. A readable document yields its meaning even when it is quickly scanned. To use an analogy, a readable report's writing is like a clear window. The purpose of the widow is to allow people to see outside. Similarly, a report's writing allows readers to see the content easily; it never calls attention to itself.
The feature of writing that addresses the reader’s need to easily access and navigate a document is called a text’s readability. Readability is simply the ease with which a reader can understand the writer’s intended message. You might also think of readability as the reader’s level of effort in finding and understanding the key points. If readability is what readers need, how can writers be sure that it is present? Throughout this book, the concepts and writing skills we provide are intended to help you keep your audit-report reader’s level of interest as high as possible and the level of effort as low as possible. Audit writers work hard so that readers don't have to.
Understanding How Readers Really Read
Research also shows that readers use an unexpected reading approach. Very seldom do they read in the way that we read a favorite novel, from beginning to end. Instead, as we’ve already suggested, because readers are busy, they skim and scan, dipping into the text here and there to locate and understand the main message. Again, this is much the way you skim and scan a newspaper or a web page.
This kind of reading is called “reading to do.” Readers pull out information in order to be able to do something right away, like make a decision. So you use a dictionary to look up a word or the manual that came with your microwave to see how to reset the clock when Daylight Savings comes. Readers who “read to do” often may not remember the details of the information later on. The point is to read to get something done.
By contrast, in most academic situations readers “read to learn.” The object of reading to learn is to absorb as much information as possible for later recall, like for a test. A textbook carries this assumption, that students assigned to read it will read every word.
Given this skimming mode of reading and the predominance of “reading to do,” readers benefit from such helps as informative headings and sub-headings, beginning summaries, tables of contents, and graphics. These devices help readers skim; they help readers get what they need quickly and when they need it. Remember, you don't want readers to think; you want them to understand as they read. And audit reports are not mystery novels.
So How Does Communication Actually Work?
The most common theory of how communication works is the Transmission Model of Communication (TMC), developed by Shannon and Weaver at Bell Labs in 1947. You probably have been introduced to this model of communication in college though you may not recognize it by the name TMC. This model says communication happens when a SENDER encodes information and transmits it to a RECEIVER who decodes it despite any NOISE (interference) that might hinder the transmission from SENDER to RECEIVER. Communication is successful if the RECEIVER receives what the SENDER sends.
S ->N ->O ->I ->S ->E -> R
(encodes) m e s s a g e (decodes)
But this model was developed to explain how radio signals are sent from a transmitting station to a receiving station. This famous model of communication was never intended to apply to people, who need to communicate meaningful information to each other using words.
Another weakness of TMC is that it privileges the SENDER and greatly diminishes the role of RECEIVER. This model suggests that whatever the SENDER (writer) wants to send (write) is just fine because RECEIVERS, according to the TMC, are like great empty vessels just waiting to be filled with the SENDER'S incoming information.
But that’s not how people communicate. (How can I forget that day when my teenage son threw up his hand when I began to talk parentally to him and uttered those fateful words, “Dad, talk to the hand because the head don't care….” What a great image to show how our readers, in reality, approach workplace writing! The reader can "throw up her hand" at any time.)
As RECEIVERS we pay attention just long enough to see if the information interests us, is obviously meant for us. If not, we delete it and turn our attention elsewhere. Readers have absolute control of the DELETE BUTTON. That’s an awful lot of power. Who’s in control of this very communication we’re having right now? It’s true that we’re supplying the words, but you could shut us off and turn away at any moment, and then how powerful would we be? (“Talk to the hand….”)
While there is some very basic truth in what TMC claims, it’s so basic that it fails to register what’s going on at a macro-level where people use language to communicate. Because it fails to consider important and fundamental aspects of the dynamics involved in human communication, we need a better model.
Let’s replace the TMC model with the model suggested by a simple conversation. In a conversation, we take turns “sending” and “receiving,” going back and forth until the communication is successful. In a conversation, the power is held by the one who asks the questions.
In fact, the absolutely crucial point is that conversations are generated and continue to operate through a loose string of related questions and answers. Without questions, conversations don’t exist. Take a few seconds and let that point sink in because it’s going to be essential for crafting effective audit reports….
Questions are the manifestation of our interest when we talk to someone. If we’re interested, we ask questions and more questions until our interest is satisfied. If someone is talking and you’re not asking questions on a fairly regular basis, that’s called a lecture—so beware.
You might be wondering how writing can be a conversation since, when we write, the reader isn’t there. In fact, writing is often (inaccurately) described as “one-way communication.” Certainly the TMC appears to think that way. But there’s no such thing as one-way communication. That would merely be transmission, a kind of monolog. And, in fact, that’s one of the main problems, maybe THE main problem with ineffective writing: it’s merely the transmission of information, not a conversation. The reader is left out! You could be writing to a statue of a gnome.
Using Conversation as a Model for Developing Audit Reports
Equipped with the idea that a conversation is an excellent model for communication, we’re left with one big problem: how can you have a conversation with someone who’s not there?
Luckily, readers are predictable to a certain extent. They will ask and seek answers to the following three questions as they consider whether to read any document. As we’ll talk about later in more detail, you can use these three questions to organize an executive summary (see Appendix X) and the three main parts of your audit report (the introduction, the findings, and the recommendations—see Appendix X). Here are their 3 BIG QUESTIONS:
1. What is this (why are you bothering me?) and why should I care?
When you or any other reader first sees some writing (an email, a letter, a report, etc.), you start by asking this two-part question. You try to identify exactly what it is as quickly as possible, and then you try to determine whether it’s worth your time to pay further attention to it. For example, when you go through your snail mail, you quite ruthlessly and quickly decide whether to open the envelope to read or to toss it (many people sort the mail over a trash can). You see who sent it. You decide quickly whether it will benefit you in any way.
Audit reports are no different. The beginning of the audit report (probably the one-page executive summary) should quickly introduce the reader to the report by identifying what it’s about and why it matters. It's a best practice (at GAO, for example) to provide a HOOK right away that tells readers what’s at stake, why this report is important, why this issue deserves their attention.
2. What’s the “story”?
If the HOOK encourages the reader to learn more about the issue raised, and if you have previewed your objectives up front to explain your take on the issue, the reader’s next big question is about the “story” the audit will tell. This section makes up the findings; the findings make up essentially the same “story” the reader would expect to hear at an exit conference. It’s not a literary narrative; it’s more like a compelling argument. The reader will want to know if there are any problems. If so, how serious they are, what criteria you used in evaluating them, what evidence you have, what the effect of the problems is, and probably what caused the problems. An audit report should address this second big question in the findings section of the report, the report body.
3. What’s Next?
This third and final question requires that an audit report provide a set of recommendations to address the problems discovered and analyzed in the findings. The reader will expect the recommendations to link back to the causes of the problem that have been explained in the findings.
Not all reports lead to recommendations. It is possible to write what we’ll call a descriptive report—a report that only describes (condition only) but does not evaluate (no criteria). Such reports rarely lead to recommendations and usually don’t indicate any future actions. They can be very helpful especially if what is discussed is poorly understood, for example.
As we continue our quest to understand what makes reports useful and readable, we’ll find that addressing the reader’s 3 Big Questions is crucial. In fact, these three big questions are the keys to constructing the introduction, the discussion, and the recommendation sections of the executive summary and the entire report.
But now it’s important to move on to see how writing functions, to see literally what parts make up any piece of writing. As you’ll see, documents should be seen as a interdependent collection of seven systems—each one functioning separately but simultaneously to create helpful content and a readable presentation. We call this the HOCs and LOCs model (HOCs stands for Higher Order Concerns. LOCs stands for Lower Order Concerns.).
The HOCs and LOCs Model for Usefulness and Readability
The HOCs and LOCs model for usefulness and readability acknowledges what readers face when they read. Imagine being able to pass a document through a writing prism. That single text would break up into the seven systems that simultaneously work together in the text, just as, by analogy, the white light we see by breaks into the seven individual colors of the light spectrum. In just this way, the seven systems resolve into one unified document. If you are missing one color, no white light; missing one of the sevenfunctioning systems of writing, no unified document.
Earlier we compared auditors to physicians. Physicians understand that the human body is made up of many separate, interdependent systems: the circulatory system, the nervous system, the skeletal system, the digestive system, the respiratory system, etc. Audit-report writers should view documents in a similar way, as made up of seven separate, interdependent systems.
If anything goes wrong in any of the seven systems within the Spectrum of Usefulness and Readability, readers will have trouble, although they may not know just why. To get the message successfully into readers’ minds, writers must manage and create the proper emphasis in each of the seven systems that make up the text.
Most writers have been taught to pay attention mainly to the fifth level, sentences. Certainly good writers must control sentences, but they must control the whole spectrum of writing. Having perfect sentences does not mean you have strong content.
We hope the Spectrum of Usefulness and Readability will change the way you look at and approach writing. It is the foundational concept—the paradigm—for everything we discuss in this book.
The following model illustrates The Spectrum of Usefulness and Readability and the seven systems that affect usefulness readability:
The Spectrum of Usefulness and Readability
The model shows the seven systems, beginning with the content that the writer wants to deliver to the reader. Between the writer’s message on the one side and the reader’s getting to that message on the other stand seven systems within the text. These seven systems function simultaneously, each helping to deliver the writer’s intended message to the reader.
Knowing Each Part of the HOCs and LOCs Model of Writing
Readers want to know, as soon as possible, what the main point is. “What’s the bottom line,” they ask, "What's the point"? And what critical thinking and evidence do you have to support your claims? This top layer is Content; it includes the main point a document is trying to make, answers to the main audit objectives, and appropriate supporting details. Another way to think of content is
1. the questions addressed in the document (we call these the objectives, which should coincide with the questions the reader is actually interested in given the audit scope—the ISSUE),
2. the direct answers to those questions, and
3. any supporting arguments (the four elements) and evidence needed to explain the answers.
As readers encounter content, they are also affected by the order in which ideas are presented, or the Organization, and next by the writing’s physical arrangement on the page--the Design of the document. These top three layers are called the Higher Order Concerns (HOCs for short) because they pertain universally to the whole document and because any change during the writing process at the HOCs level here affects the LOCs. For instance, if I add or delete information, I’ll add or take away words, sentences, or paragraphs.
At a more local level, the reader meets the Lower Order Concerns (LOCs for short), those layers of the writing we usually think of as “style,” that pertain to the paragraphs, sentences, individual words, and mechanics—rules of grammar, punctuation, etc. The largest of these components is the Paragraph, a kind of mini-document within the overall text. Readers are subtly but significantly affected by paragraph construction as they move through the writing. The next layer at work is the Sentence, the place where readers access information point by point. Within the sentence is Word Choice, which conveys tone, the writer’s attitude toward the material and the reader, and which names agents and their actions. Also within the sentence is the final layer of Mechanics, the spelling, punctuation, and grammatical connections that integrate the words and ensure they are working together with proper emphasis so the reader can follow along easily. The writer’s task is to control emphasis within all seven systems of the document at once.
Applying the HOCs and LOCs Approach from the Top Down
We have cogent reasons for arranging the seven systems in a hierarchy. For example, if the writer does not emphasize message (in the topmost level) effectively, the reader will have a hard time comprehending any of the rest of the writing. Thus, only when the HOCs are thoroughly explored and developed, the message and the organization of supporting details clear and helpful to the reader, is it time to craft the LOCs and not before.
Does that make LOCs less important than HOCs? Certainly not. By the time writers finish, the will have carefully addressed all seven systems. The LOCs are never left out. They are simply polished at the proper time, toward the end of the process. As Stephen Covey has said so well, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” HOCs are the main thing.
An analogy will help here. Imagine building a house. House building has to be done in a certain order. It begins with a good plan (blueprints and mechanicals) that has the owners’ blessing and will meet their needs. Then workers prepare a solid foundation (footings) and do the basic framing. These steps in the process of building must precede pipes and wires, plastered walls, painting or wallpapering, and carpeting. A house would not be livable unless all these elements were in place, but there is a necessary order. A house could not be built in reverse order, by painting walls, for example, because there are no walls to paint. Though it is certainly true that most of us visualize a house from the inside (how it looks after it is finished).
Similarly, effective audit report writing cannot be done by beginning with sentences or the rules of grammar and working from them on up even though many auditors seem to believe that good editors can "save" a report. Editors are usually the first to tell you that they cannot. LOCs depend on the HOCs as much as wallpapering depends on walls. But the problem is that writers and reviewers tend to think of writing as the way the sentences are arranged. They worry about LOCs first. By polishing sentences before the message and organization are fully realized, writers and reviewers are doing the equivalent of trying to install fixtures in a bathroom before the walls are up.
To say it another way, the LOCs depend logically on the HOCs: If you change the message, everything beneath is subject to change to some extent, just as changes in the blueprint will change how the interior of a house eventually appears. But it is not likely that changing a word or sentence will change the overall message, any more than changing a bathroom fixture will change the overall structure of a house.
In learning to think of audit report writing as designing a reading experience for your particular reader (DARE), you learn to think architecturally about writing–from client to blueprint to the color of the paint. And in case we did not make this obvious enough, the “client” is the reader. That’s who drives writing. Remember, in audit report writing, the reader is everything. You cannot say your writing is a success until your reader does.
The next chapter begins to describe how to apply the HOCs and LOCs method to create successful, impactful, helpful audit report writing most efficiently.