When it comes to change, the New Year inspires us to out the old and in the new. And there’s one area that could probably use some retiring: the old and worn out audit report.
Consider this: Twitter allows only 140 characters in a tweet. Instagram communicates primarily in pictures. Texting rolls out in emojis and abbreviations. And everyone is checking an update or reading a book on a bite-sized electronic. The way we consume information has changed! And consumers pay attention to stuff – how stuff looks and how fast they can access the stuff they need.
Social media and the Internet changed the rules, not for how we ought to communicate, but how we get to communicate.
In a world of competing messages, it’s important that reports come across as fresh and informative. To keep your audience engaged, audit report formats should be revisited every year or two. And when you update, consider new ways of presenting existing ideas.
No longer are we tethered to long paragraphs and verbose explanations. We can communicate just as effectively in words, graphics, and colors.
No longer must a report be printed. A report will be opened online, and should therefore include videos, graphics, and hyperlinks.
This article won’t show you exactly how the report should look, but will you give you some of the basics to expunge elements of the old audit report so you can make room for the new audit report.
1. Ask questions
First, you need to revisit who reads reports and how they read them, as this may have changed since the last update. Ask:
- Who is my main audience for this report? What is most important to them?
- Is this report most often read online or on paper?
- What are limitations on videos, graphics, or pictures for the report?
- What format is convenient for the audience (i.e., Web format, PDF, Word) and my team?
With answers to these questions in mind, you can begin to edit your current report, build a new report from scratch, or use a hybrid of these two options.
2. Begin the edit process
If you decide to edit your current report, highlighters are helpful during this process. You can highlight in Word, or you can old-school print out the report and highlight with markers – whatever is comfortable. Three colors should do the trick:
- Red highlights all items that are no longer relevant to the report, either stylistically or content-wise (i.e., excess verbiage, formatting that was better suited to printed rather than online viewing).
- Yellow highlights items you think are no longer relevant (e.g., confusing or outdated charts, verbiage, etc.)
- Green highlights items that should stay in the report (background, scope, audit findings, and other dynamic information.)
3. Think like your audience
Most important information should be on the first page. If your first page is solely devoted to sharing the report title, you may have already lost some of your readers, as they want to read important information without scrolling.
From the beginning, think like the executive who will read the report. For many readers, risk and responsibility will be most important to them. With updated audit reports, companies have used their first page effectively and in different ways. You’ll have to decide what jives for your company, but first-page examples include the following:
- Executive Summary. A one-page executive summary that summarizes the significant issues.
- Memo. A brief memo (5-10 lines only) that describes risk and any other information the executive or main audience might be interested in.
- Graphic. A graphic that illustrates risk levels for each risk area (i.e., financial, reputational, compliance, strategic, operational), so the respective executive can choose to read further if their area is affected.
As you include important information on the first page and the few pages thereafter, your audience will be more quickly engaged in the audit findings. You can read more about audience considerations and audit reporting here.
4. Layer for understanding
Prioritizing information for the reader is a form of layering. Layering allows the reader to skip and skim the document for easier and faster access. Specifically, you can layer an audit report:
- By priority, putting most fundamental and important items first.
- With horizontal headings, such as this article that uses headings to pull you through the process
- With vertical scan columns, where the left side calls out specific areas of interest
- By italicizing, boldfacing, or highlighting important words or definitions
There are many different ways to layer a document, and you don’t have to do all of them. But whatever you decide to do, you should be consistent. Layering should enhance the understanding and maneuverability of the audit report, so layer as appropriate.
5. Move or remove static or outdated information
There are two types of information in a report: static information never changes and is common to every report (i.e., recipients lists, definitions, acronyms, disclaimers) and new dynamic information is new and specific to the audit itself (scope, background, audit findings, risks).
In older reports, static information often takes up the first page or two; however, static information may be more suitable for the appendix and referred to in a hyperlink.
For example, rather than listing all 20 recipients of an audit report on the first page, insert a hyperlink on the first page that reads: Click here for a full list of recipients. This way, you just freed up an additional 4-8 lines to share dynamic information on the first page.
As you munch through the report deciding what to keep and what to discard, prioritize the information. Some static information may be pertinent to the first few pages, while other information is best moved to the appendix. Keep in mind that an appendix shouldn’t be a catchall for everything. You might consider using a webpage to stash information that never or rarely changes, like risk level definitions or commonly used acronyms. Then you can hyperlink all your reports to the webpage, thus updating a single webpage without updating each report.
For professional reasons, there will need to be some sentences or disclaimers that need to stay in the report. But question everything you see over and over as it may be sentences and organization patterns that have been grandfathered into the report and are no longer needed.
6. Create your first report design
Now that you’ve deleted old information and prioritized or layered the information you want to keep, look at how you can streamline the way the report looks. This article already discussed layering, but here are some other quick ideas to spruce up the new design:
Font. The debate continues over whether the right type for print or digital should be serif (e.g., font with the little strokes on the edges of the letter, like Times New Roman) or sans serif (no strokes, like Helvetica). Serif fonts supposedly help the reader when reading printed text, while sans serif helps in digital text; however, the ease of each font might be a myth as print and online media both have excellent resolution. We have all read serif and sans serif just fine.
In the end, the font you use comes down to preference. Well-designed documents often use a mix of both serif and sans serif (one for headings, the other for the paragraph body). Just be consistent.
Color and graphics. Color and graphics can add dimension and understanding to the report. For example, communicate risk levels with colors:
If you use color to define, pay attention to how you use colors, as those who are colorblind won’t see the same color. That’s why you use the text with the color as above.
Hover icons. Did you know that you could create a pop-up bubble on your PDF? For example, if you divide your audit findings into significant and reportable findings, you can highlight significant and reportable and include a definition that pops up when the reader hovers over the highlighted word. Little random tricks like this can increase the usability of the report.
Line/word limits for sections. So that the report doesn’t turn into a behemoth report, consider capping the lengths of sections (e.g., Scope section can only be five lines or under 70 words).
7. Test your new report and make changes
Once you feel like you have a solid redesign, take it for a test drive with fellow auditors, your CAE, and others in the company. You may find some interesting updates you hadn’t considered.
Reports could be less stuffy and still communicate the same information. You want your audience to read the report, so keep it fresh and informative.
When was the last time your company updated the audit report? What tips can you pass along?