Some thoughts on note taking for internal auditors

There is a lot of information available on academic note taking

Good note taking is a craft all by itself. Look at any website of any itself respecting college or university and you will find at least one class on advanced note taking skills. Do a search on the web and you will find many a pdf and even youtube videos demonstrating the essentials and even the more advanced aspects of note taking in an academic context. Clearly, note taking is important.

Most of these courses focus on capturing information gleaned from monologues for the purpose of understanding and learning. And that is logical, because undergraduate and graduate students alike need to attend lectures, most often delivered by a person in front of a class room.

But there is little information on note taking for internal auditors out there

But would it surprise you that there are few, very few results for a search as simple as “note taking for internal auditors”? There is this exchange on LinkedIn by the ever excellent Robert Berry, with both the article and the comments providing insight in techniques. Still, that is pretty much what is out there. And that’s a shame, because I believe note taking for internal auditors is a lot more complex than traditional note taking. Let’s explore why for a minute:

Notes need to reflect what was said

Internal audit note taking needs to provide an accurate reflection of what the auditee said, not of what the auditor thought he or she understood. This is important because interviews are part of internal audit evidence (albeit it a weaker part) and we want to make sure that even preliminary, further to be audited findings are based on what was said, not on our interpretation.

Notes need to lead to a better understanding in real time

However, at the same time, your notes need to lead you to a better understanding of the subject matter you are interviewing about. Because if you are just verbatim copying what is said, without any understanding happening along the way, you will need to do your understanding later, and the clarification will then burden your interviewee long after he or she has walked away from the interview.

Notes need to allow you to put markers where you need clarification

In addition, notes need to allow the note taker, the auditor, to identify areas for further clarification during the interview. Whereas understanding deals with the width of the understanding of a process under review, we need to get the necessary depth as well. Often, you will not be able to immediately interrupt your interviewee to ask for clarification, so your note taking system needs to allow you to put markers in places you want to come back to later, but still during the interview.

Juggling plates

Adding to this complexity is that audit interview notes are being taken during not a monologue, but a conversation. You cannot, as an auditor, enter into a trance and come out 90 minutes later with the goods, without any interaction with the auditee. On the contrary, you will need to engage in very active listening, identifying those points where the conversation blocks, halts or provides any indications of issues, coaxing your auditee to touch all aspects of the matter under review, but while still maintaining an as accurate record.

Yes, good internal audit interviewing does start to feel like juggling a mighty number of plates at the same time.

Reconverting the Cornell Note Taking Technique

The question then becomes, how can you make this work in a very practical way? Well, we can actually reconvert an old, but trusted college note taking technique, the Cornell Note Taking Technique for our purposes.

I like the Cornell Note Taking Technique because it is a very simple technique that allows you to take high quality notes with only limited logistical preparation. It does not require special software, it does not require high tech tools such as audio recorders, it just requires a pen, an adequate supply of paper, and the clarity of your mind.

Note taking phases

I want to take you through a number of phases which I follow when taking notes:


To use the Cornell Note Taking Technique, you need to do a little bit of preparatory work. It takes all of five seconds, if you are used to it, on a white piece of letter or A4 paper.

We want to divide our page into three blocks: two columns and one block at the bottom. Let’s do the block at the bottom first. You need to reserve about 2 inches or 5 cm of space at the bottom, which will become your summary block for that page. Then you need to draw a line about 7 cm or 2 1/2 inches from the left side of the page. The left column will become your cue column and the right column, which is about 6 inches or 15 cm wide, will become your note taking column. And that is the logistical part of the exercise.

There is another dimension to the preparation, which is content preparation. I like to list an initial structure of the interview on the very first page of my notes. This structure covers the key topics I want to cover during the interview. If the interviewee would go off track, I have a reference structure I can fall back on. For some interviewees whom I know to tend to go wide, I will even put that structure on a flipchart, which they can refer to.

During the interview

During the interview I use the large note taking column to write down my notes. It’s impossible to write down the transcript of the meeting verbatim and I don’t want to use a voice recorder because using it will create a significant initial barrier between me and the interviewee. It’s just not accepted practice. What I do is to make notes of the key points of what has been said by using active listening skills, including confirmation of understanding.

I also write down the literal question I ask to trigger a response from an interviewee. To me, this is essential because the way you ask the question will influence the response you will get. A response without the initial question becomes a lot harder to interpret later.

Now, whenever I have questions, attention points or needs for further clarification, I will avoid interrupting the interviewee. I will rather note down a short code or indicator in the cue column which I can refer back to once the interviewee has stopped speaking.

The reason for this is simple: it may well be that the interviewee will answer the question I currently have in a couple of phrases, without me needing to explicitly ask the question. It would be a waste of time and effort to interrupt the train of thought of my interviewee for some information he or she was about to provide me with.

Let’s look at the codes I most often use in the cue column:

  • Q indicates a question I need to ask
  • ? indicates that I need some clarification on a point raised
  • ! indicates an important point that I need to consider as part of my summary
  • TD indicates a to do for myself, which I need to enter in my task list
  • TD (NAME) indicates a to do for someone else which I need to email them of transfer them in some other way

So, during my note taking I also use these codes in the cue column. Whenever the interviewee has finished explaining an aspect of the area under review or has just answered a question, I move up along to cue column and find the first short code that has not been crossed out yet. I then ask the questions (Q), the clarifications (?) or I confirm my understanding of the important points (!) which I wrote down. Whenever a point is cleared, I cross it out and move down in the cue column, to the next short code. In this way, I cover all the open points up to the final one.

End of the meeting

I usually try to digest my notes as soon as possible after a meeting. This goes in two passes through the material. First, I go through the notes integrally. I note important points, already often indicated by the exclamation mark (!) and I write them in the cue column.

After that first pass, I revisit the cue column and make a summary of the key points in the summary space at the bottom of the page. I usually try to make these whole sentences, because that’s how I internalize best. I also deal with the specific action items I left a short code for. These are my to do’s or to do’s I need to assign to someone else.

The summary notes are then transcribed in a meeting summary, which may, depending on the circumstances, be sent to the interviewee for validation. Usually, these summary notes are just the sentences which I already wrote down in the summary space strung together into a coherent text. To me, it makes little sense to transcribe all my notes, but I want the summary in a standard txt file and in our Basecamp workspace. The notes are scanned and the PDF scan is attached to the summary note in Basecamp.

A final point of attention

When you are processing your notes in the summary space, you need to make sure that you have clarity on all points covered during your interview. If you fail to clarify all the elements, you run the risk of misinterpretation, which will influence further testing and lead you astray, costing you time and resources.

A conclusion

While this method of note taking may seem extensive, it allows me to ensure both a proper understanding of the content and the intent of the interviewee as well as appropriating the material gathered. This enables me to ask the difficult questions later.