Learning to "BLUF"

Learning to “BLUF”

By putting the “bottom line up front,” internal auditors can ensure that the messages in their emails are received.  

Joanne Feierman
Seminars in Communication 

Internal auditors rely on written communication in almost all situations they encounter, whether writing a report summarizing a department audit, exchanging emails with management during a fraud investigation, or documenting internal controls and processes. Therefore, it should be no surprise that auditors must possess excellent written communication skills to succeed in their profession.

Anyone who has ever taken a course in writing likely has been told to determine a purpose and think about the reader before writing. While this advice holds true for any type of written communication, it has become particularly useful in the world of electronic communication.

One way internal auditors can get their point across is learning how to “BLUF” — put the bottom line up front.

In addition to determining a purpose before writing and considering the reader, auditors must learn to write an email subject line that will get noticed and tell the recipient the essence of what the email says. 

Most people read emails with their index finger poised over their mouse’s left button. Why? That finger is on standby to open or delete. This decision usually is made in a millisecond. As more people rely on their smart phones for email, learning to “BLUF” in the subject line may help prevent an email from becoming cyber-trash.

An email subject line should be as good as a headline in The Wall Street Journal — except shorter. Subject lines should be no more than 10 words, and they should never begin with something generic, such as “ABC Vendor Account,” “Update,” or “IMPORTANT.” Too often, the auditor assumes the intended recipient will remember a recent conversation about the ABC vendor account and eagerly open the email. However, in the moments since that discussion, other pressing matters may have captured the recipient’s attention. That’s why the subject line has to be short and to-the-point — “Need response to complaint from ABC by noon” or “ABC wants to set up a review session next week,” for example.

The Bottom Line
Audit clients — and sometimes audit department leaders — often criticize audit reports for being too long and too wordy. They say it takes the writer too long to get to the point, or that the auditor provides readers with too many details. If auditors would challenge themselves to immediately get to the botoom line, their reports would improve.

While drafting audit results, auditors should always ask themsleves: "What's the bottom line in this situation? What's the issue? What's the risk? What's the cause? What's the recommendation?" Good reporting requires not telling the reader every test that was performed and every fact that was uncovered during the fieldwork. Good reporting lies in communicating the bottom line.

The body of the email is the appropriate place to write whatever else needs to be said. Auditors should make sure to address the “who,” “what,” “where,” “why,” and “how” in their emails and proofread the text before sending. An email does not have to be a certain length to be professional, so auditors should aim to get their point across in as few words as possible. It’s doubtful that someone has liked an email so much and said, “That email was so good. I wish it had been longer.”

There are times when putting the bottom line up front would be rude or in poor taste. An auditor wouldn’t begin a letter to an audit client by saying, “Your department’s internal controls are atrocious.” The same holds true for sensitive messages. For example, management that needs each department to cut its expenses by 10 percent likely wouldn’t announce that with an email subject line reading: “10 percent cuts in all departments.” By writing something like “Cost-reduction measures,” management could broach the topic without scaring recipients with the harsh bottom line.

Auditors who master the art of writing good subject lines will not only get their emails opened and read, but will also be able to write faster. They will find that the act of determining the bottom line sharpens their thinking, and by stating the bottom line first, they won’t be tempted to include details that don’t really add value. In fact, auditors who learn to “bluf” may find that they write 20 percent to 30 percent less than they used to. Creating crystal-clear beginnings turns out to be a simple yet powerful way to become a better writer and connect faster with the reader.

Joanne Feierman, president of Seminars in Communication, presents workshops on effective writing for IIA chapters and conferences as well as internal auditors at major corporations. Her book, Action Grammar (Simon & Schuster, 1995), now in its 13th printing.

To comment on this article, email the editor at shannon.steffee@theiia.org.