You Tell Me So Much More Than I Need to Know

I know we have a lot of sports fans out there. So, allow me to give you a brief update on the critical information regarding last night's Super Bowl. 

Alicia Keys took 2 minutes and 26 seconds to sing the national anthem. The power outage (much to my surprise) was not caused by a Supervillain who could only be vanquished by Iron Man. The 49ers were in red; the Ravens were in white. And, in what many misled people might consider the highlight of the evening, Beyoncé spent an extraordinary amount of time during the epitome of overhyped rigmarole attempting to entertain by cavorting and wailing about things like rings and fingers, including a reunion with two former cavorters and wailers that seemed to have importance to a great many people. The only thing that might have been worse would be if Taylor Swift had done the halftime show. And ads during the Super Bowl informed us that Ms. Swift will be opening for/destroying the beginning of the Grammy's next week. And it suddenly hits me that I've probably alienated a sizable portion of my reading population and, when you start with the tiny numbers I have, it probably isn't a smart thing to cause too much alienation. And it also appears that I have faded, just slightly, off course.
Oh yeah, one of the teams won. And, I think, the other team lost.
What, you may ask, has that got to do with the price of beets, the weather in Nacogdoches, and the title of this particular post?
Nothing. And that is the point.
I recently had the occasion to revisit the standards. You know what those are, right? They are those guidelines that we memorize to pass our CIA exam and then don't worry about until someone indicates it's time for a quality assessment. (Hint – I am not sitting for the CIA exam.) So, let's do something really different for me –let's quote the standards. Standard 2420 – Quality of Communications – states "Communications must be accurate, objective, clear, concise, constructive, complete, and timely." The further interpretation states "Concise communications are to the point and avoid unnecessary elaboration, superfluous detail, redundancy, and wordiness."
If my introductory comments were meant to be accurate, objective, clear, concise, constructive, complete, and timely regarding the actual sporting event, I'd have to say that about the only one I got correct was "timely". (And, considering how quickly information moves these days, I may be pressing it to take credit on that one.)
And I am here to tell you that the auditees reading your audit reports think that those reports (particularly the backgrounds) have as much relevance to their operations as my ramblings about the Star Spangled Banner, Beyoncé, and the Grammy's. Think back to the background of the last few reports you have written/read/reviewed/edited. How much of that information really complies with the standards? And let me focus just a bit more – how much of that information was clear and concise?
Let me share a story ripped from the pages of "True Life Auditing Tales". I had a couple of auditors who insisted that the background section should include the size of the department being audited. One manager, two supervisors, and fifteen accountants; two VPs, three directors, five managers, and 16 clerks; six of these and five of those and 23 of them; ten lords a leaping, eight maids a milking, and a partridge in a pear tree. No matter how often I tried to get them to leave the information out, they insisted on including it.
What excuse did they give? That the background was supposed to paint the picture of the department so any reader would have a good context upon which to judge the results of the audit. Yep, the excuse we always give when we write more than needs to be written. The pictures we paint are in the pointillism style when all that is needed is minimalism.
While I have heard many audit managers, directors, etc. provide feedback asking for more information to be put in reports (particularly background sections), I have never heard a single auditee make the same request. (Wait, I lie. I worked with one very strange auditee who insisted that each bullet point within the scope be almost a paragraph long. No, she didn't specifically ask for a paragraph. But, after we added all the things she seemed to feel necessary, it turned out to be a paragraph.) 
My one strange parenthetical incident aside, no auditee wants more. And yet, we consistently overwrite in a Pavlovian response rooted in the fear that every shred of information must be conveyed. And I have the feeling that, just like Pavlov's dogs, it is a learned response. Back when we were wet-behind-the-spreadsheet auditors, we all lived in fear that someone would find out we didn't know everything about everything. So, our response was to prove how much we did, indeed, know.
And as we have all aged and become dry-behind-the-worksheets auditors, it is so ingrained we cannot give it up. 
If you are going to list the size of the department, or the total expenses of the department, or the regulatory body which can come in and cause havoc, or the last time any employee took a vacation, or the average square footage of each cubicle, or the sock size of each employee, or what everyone had for lunch, or any other of the limitless expanse of arcane information available, then you better have a real good reason for including it. The background is not an excuse for a mind dump. It is supposed to be a concise (concise, concise, concise – say it three times so it gets get locked in) description of the operation.
Yes, I know some of the ones I listed can be important. But don't just get yourself in the habit of throwing information in because there was a time, long ago, when someone thought it might be nice to include in one particular report. Or, the worse situation, where you just aren't sure what is important so you start reporting on the number of kitchen sinks you came across.
There was a football game last night. In spite of a strong comeback by the 49ers, the Ravens won 34 to 31. That is an accurate, objective, clear, and concise reporting of the events. That is the conciseness that needs to be accomplished when putting together a report. And, if someone wants more details, that is what discussions are for. And it is probably better if we all just leave out our feelings about Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
(And, yes, the irony of my spending this long talking about writing succinctly has not escaped me. Those who can't do, write blogs.)

Posted on Feb 4, 2013 by Mike Jacka

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  1. This comment relates back to the 12/12 IA magazine article on "Just Tell Me What I Need to Know".  The criticicism is warranted of my reports which you detailed.  What suggested changes to a complete reporting to all levels of management from a completed audit project would you propose?  The best answer would take the report you critiqued and converting that to a currently best practice reporting.

  1. The question often comes up "what is the right amount to report to the various levels?"  Because report writing is as much art as science, there is no great answer.  But let me speak to two things.

    First, one of the purposes of an exeuctive summary is to allow the writer to complete two reports - one for those interested in the details and one that provides an overview (usually for executives.)  That helps solve part of the problem of addressing different audiences.

    Second, one fool-proof approach is to talk to your customers.  Talk to them about what they want to see.  Get their feedback on your reports.  In other words, as with any other part of the business, work with your customers to deliver what it is they want to see.


  1.  While I partially agree with your condemnation of lengthy executive summaries at the beginning of a report you should understand that reports are often intended gor multiple readers who may not have been part of the audit consultation. Such reports need to cater to three types of readers. 1. Those that are only interested in a concise summary. 2. Those that want to understand the entire process from background to recommendations., and 3.Those readers who are interested in all aspects including the minutia of detailed findings ideally presented in appendices, tables, etc.

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