An Ancient Skill

I remember Professor Jerome Taylor in his graduate class at the University of Chicago introducing us to the complexities of what the ancients called the trivium. Because the setting for the process of fraud examination is so often fraught with emotion and confusion, even a beginning fraud examiner quickly realizes that presenting evidence collected during examination fieldwork merely as a succession of facts often isn’t enough to fully convince clients and to adequately address their many concerns (many of which always seem to emerge all at once). To capture stakeholders’ attention, and to elicit a satisfactory response, CFEs need to possess some degree of rhetorical skill.

Rhetoric refers to the use of language to persuade and instruct. Throughout the Middle Ages, European universities taught rhetoric to beginning students as one of three foundational topics composing what was known as the trivium. Logic and grammar, the other two foundational topics, refer to the mechanics of thought and analysis, and to the mechanics of language, respectively. We CFEs and forensic accountants essentially follow the trivium in our work, whether we realize it or not. After gathering evidence through fieldwork, we apply logic to analyze that evidence and to present our vision of the facts to our client organizations in our final reports. We also use grammatical rules to structure text within our reports and memorandum.

Applying the trivium requires a balanced approach; too much focus on any one of the three components to the exclusion of the others can lead to ineffective communication. Fraud examiners need to consider all three trivium components evenly and avoid the common trap of collecting too much evidence or performing too much analysis in the belief that such concentrations will help strengthen our final reports.

The ancient Greeks defined three key components of rhetoric, the speech itself (text), the speaker delivering the speech (author), and those who listen to the speech (audience). Collectively, these components form what’s called the rhetorical triangle. For CFEs, the triangle’s three points equate to the final report or memorandum, the CFE him or herself, and our clients or stakeholders. All three of the rhetorical triangle components are interrelated, and they are each essential to the success of all investigative and/or assurance work. Each should be considered before any engagement and kept in mind throughout the engagement life cycle but especially during the report writing and presentation process.

Although the investigative team lead would be considered the primary author, each of the engagement team members plays a supporting role by authoring observations and preliminary findings that are then compiled into an integrated report. The person performing the important task of draft reviewer also has a role to play, ensuring that the final report meets ACFE and other applicable standards and fulfills the overall purpose defined in the planning document.

The character of the intended audience should be considered with each engagement. Audience members are not homogeneous; each may have different perspectives and expectations. For this reason, CFEs need to consult with them and consider their perspectives even before the engagement begins to the extent feasible.

Once engagement fieldwork has been completed, the authors compose a written report containing the results of the investigative field work. The report represents perhaps the most important outcome communication from the examination process, and the best chance to focus the client’s attention.

When crafting the final report, three separate but interrelated components, designated ‘appeals’, need to be considered and applied: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is an appeal to the audience’s perception of the honesty, authority, and expertise of the report’s author. Closely related to reputation, ethos is established when the audience determines that the author is qualified, trustworthy, and believable. Because the term ethics derives from ethos, adhering to ACFEs standards and Code of Ethics supports this appeal.

Some helpful formulations, in the form of questions, to keep in mind regarding the ethos component when formulating your report are:

–What assumptions does your audience likely make about you and the investigative process, what you produce, and the level of service you and your team provide?
–Is there a way to take advantage of their positive assumptions to improve the fraud investigation process for the future?
–What can you do to overcome their negative assumptions, if any?
–Do you create the expectation that what you produce and the level of service you provide will be above average or even exceptional?
–Are you using all the available channels to create an impression of excellence?

For CFEs with an on-going or long-term employment or other relationship with the client, the need to consider ethos begins long before the start of any particular engagement. Ethos is supported by the structure and governance of the fraud examination or forensic accounting function as well as by the selection of team members, including alignment between the type of engagements to be performed and the team’s qualifications, education, and training. The ethos appeal is also established by choosing to comply with examination and audit standards and with other professional requirements to demonstrate a high level of credibility, build trust, and gain a favorable reputation over time.

Logos appeals to the audience’s sense of logic, encompassing factors such as the reason and analysis used, the underlying meaning communicated, and the supporting facts and figures presented. The written document’s visual appeal, diagrams, charts, and other elements, as well as how the information is organized, presented, and structured, also factor into logos. Story conveys meaning. From the time we’re born we learn about the world around us through narratives. This aspect of logos continues to be important throughout our lives. We experience the world through our senses, particularly our eyes. Design and visual attractiveness are key to engaging an audience made up of the visual animals we are.

–Is what you are presenting easy to understand?
–Is your presentation design simple and pleasing to the eye?

Investigators need for logos is addressed by their written report’s executive summary; detailed observations, and findings as well as appendices with secondary information that can be used to further instruct the audience. The report describes the origin, drivers and overall purpose of the engagement, its findings, and conclusions. Ultimately, from a rhetorical standpoint, examiners try to tell a convincing, self-contained short story that conveys key messages to the audience. The structure and format of the report, together with its textual content and visual elements, also support the logos appeal.

Like ethos, the logos appeal is fulfilled long before an individual engagement begins. It starts with the rational, periodic assessment and identification of business processes at high-risk for fraud; areas requiring management’s attention, resulting in the development and implementation of effective anti-fraud controls. CFEs are then prepared to undertake engagements, executing steps to collect valid and relevant evidence to justify conclusions and to guide and support the client’s initiation of successful prosecutions.

Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions, either positive (joy, excitement, hopefulness) or negative (anger, sadness). It is used to establish compassion or empathy. Unlike logos, pathos focuses on the audience’s irrational modes of response. The Greeks maintained that pathos was the strongest and most reliable form of persuasion. Pathos can be especially powerful when it is used well and connects with the audience’s underlying values and perspective. Used incorrectly, however, pathos can distort or detract from the impact of actual factual evidence.

Examiners should strive to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and look for ways to better understand the client/audience’s perspective. Attention to pathos can help support not only examination objectives, but the overarching goal of creating a satisfactory investigative outcome. CFEs should also be mindful of their overall tone and word selection, and ensure they balance negative and positive comments giving credit to individuals and circumstances where credit is due.

To some extent, pathos is interdependent with ethos and logos: The sting of negative results can be reduced somewhat by the positive effect of the other two appeals. For example, clients/audience members are more likely to accept bad news from someone they trust and respect, and who they know has followed a rational, structured approach to the engagement. But at the same time, ethos and logos can be offset by negative pathos. Preferred practice generally consists of holding regular meetings with corporate counsel and/or other critical stakeholders over the course of the investigation, maintaining transparency, and providing stakeholders with an opportunity to address investigative findings or provide evidence that counters or clarifies the CFEs observations.

In summary, while all three elements of rhetorical appeal play an important role in communication and while none should be neglected, CFEs and forensic accountants should pay particular attention to pathos. The dominance of feelings over reason is part of human nature, and examiners should consider this powerful element when planning and executing engagements and reporting the results. By doing so, certified investigators can help ensure audiences accept our message and make informed judgements related to fraud recovery, prosecution and possible restitution.

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