In MISTI seminars where I work with representatives from a variety of companies, each company comes to class with a different looking audit report. During the class, the group enjoys taking time to look at one another’s reports to leverage new ideas.
Every company has a different way to communicate and a different report format to use. Common formats include using paragraphs, bulleted lists, tables, or a hybrid of any of these. PowerPoint and PDF are common report outputs. I’m still waiting for a client who has a completely app-based internal audit report (real-time audit reporting would just about knock our socks off, am I right?).
When classmates in the seminars start comparing their report formats, they always ask so what’s the best way to report? Well, there is no best way – each format has its pros and cons and you have to weigh the benefits of each format for your audience.
Consider Overall Needs
To determine which report format works best for your company, determine the following needs:
- What is the preferred delivery method of your audience: electronic, print, web access, mobile device, small tablet, or a combination of any of these?
- If you choose web access, will ALL readers be able to access this information?
- What resources can you devote towards the redesign (see the Tip at the end of this article)?
Once we consider some basic audience needs, let’s look at the pros and cons of common report formats.
Narrative Format (i.e., Word, PDF)
The narrative format delivers the report in paragraphs. Think of this format like reading a book: you have chapter headings and a few subheadings, but you really have to follow the report paragraph-by-paragraph to understand the writer’s purpose. The narrative format is normally written first using Microsoft Word or equivalent and then generating a PDF using Adobe Acrobat.
This example shows you a narrative format. The entire report is written in full sentences and paragraphs. The audit issue headings contain the heading but don’t splice out smaller parts of the issue like the Scan Format would.
Pros: Using the narrative format, you can create a story where each section ties together. With more room for text, you can explain issues in greater detail.
Cons: The report can become lengthy, especially for auditors who might use the paragraph structure as a crutch to ramble. Wording differences between auditor and audit customer can prolong release.
Tip If you do choose paragraphing as your main structure, limit paragraphs for the writer so that the report doesn’t become a novel. Also, every writer will need to be skilled at using transitions between paragraphs and sentences since there is little other guidance to tie thoughts together.
Bulleted List Format (i.e., PowerPoint)
The bulleted list option works well for companies that release their final report in PowerPoint format. Bullet points tell the reader that each point in a list coordinates to the overall heading and the bullet points are roughly equal or ordered from most to least important.
Pros: When written well, the messages are crisp and easy to follow, the report is generally shorter, and the report can double as a presentation.
Cons: Bulleted lists can easily lack detail. Sentence fragments may not fully communicate messages and connections between bullet points are not explicit. Readers may be left wanting more information. With too many writers, the presentation could look messy.
Tip Too often, I see the narrative format used as a PowerPoint. Narrative PowerPoints are the worst! They take forever to follow; they’re not aesthetically pleasing, and they’re counterintuitive to the format. Here are some options to fix the problem: 1) retrain your team to succinctly convey the message in less than five words per bullet point, 2) maintain the paragraphs and move to a Word format, or 3) keep the format as is, but remember narrative PowerPoints are annoying.
Bulleted list reports may look similar to this report. You can see how sparsely populated each page should be. Too often, they look like this report. And that report is loads better than some of the messes companies send me (that I can’t share). Remember, the purpose of the PowerPoint is to be simple and concise.
Table Format (i.e., Word, PDF)
The table format is often used for automatically generated reports or as a bridge from workpapers to final reporting. Done properly, a table format can be a concise way to relay several bits of information. The table format is sectioned and often contains multiple columns and rows on a single page.
Pros: The reader can choose exactly what they want to read and how they want to read it. They can skip from the overview to the risks to the audit opinion because each section is autonomous. More information can be accessed in fewer pages.
Cons: Table format can look messy. Too many columns can make the font too small to read. Writers run into the sentence fragment issue where the message may be unclear or too terse for the customer. The sections might not relate directly, so the reader has to determine most important points first. Additionally, formatting can wreak havoc when viewed on a mobile device.
Tip When using the table format, it’s vital to use consistent table formatting. Keep all headlines the same font, size, and color. Limit the word count per section and make sure the right content is in each section (you’d be surprised how other content seeps in between the table sections). Avoid inserting another table within a table.
Scan Column Format (i.e., Word, PDF)
Similar to the narrative format, the scan column format provides more specific headings for the reader. For example, narrative format would use only the issue heading; the scan format would use the issue heading plus a left-hand scan column outlining more specific parts of the issue. Here’s a quick-and-dirty issue formatted as a narrative vs. a scan column format.
Pros: Readers can easily choose which areas to read first. Scan column helps writers to organize thoughts into each section.
Cons: Could limit connection between messages. Format isn’t very flexible. Writers must provide the proper content per section.
Tip The scan format works well for Word documents or online web access where the information is hidden until the reader clicks the section. To keep the document concise, consider imposing line guidelines (i.e., Background section can only be three lines or 40 words long).
A note about creating PDFs: To create PDFs, Adobe Acrobat (the program that creates PDFs – not Acrobat Reader) is your best friend. In Adobe Acrobat, you can password protect your report, add pop-up definitions, insert links to shorten the overall report, generate a table of contents, and more. Merely saving a document as a PDF doesn’t allow subheadings to be linked. If your audience will view your reports as PDF, it’s worth getting an Acrobat license.
In leveraging your audit report formats, there are many correct ways to format well, but a few gaping wrong ways to blunder your report. Pay attention to the needs of your audience, consistency in fonts and sizes, and grammar. Don’t include anything that’s superfluous. And if you can, call in a writing or design expert – from MISTI, a local university, or elsewhere. You’ll be glad you did.
Tip Want to update your report on the cheap and save some time? Here’s a great way to save on internal resources: use your local college or university. Contact the Instructional Design department, or inquire if there is a similar major or emphasis. These departments teach students how to use solid design to best deliver information. Your local college may have a class looking for a project. Hand them your scrubbed audit report and see what they can do with it!
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