Have you tried ChatGPT yet?
You’ve probably heard about it. (Possibly way too much already.)
It’s the new AI tool which is meant to react in a conversational way. Microsoft has recently announced that they’re integrating it with Word and Outlook.
And you can ask it to write anything you like.
So over the past couple of weeks I’ve tasked it with a whole range of different email writing challenges, from the short ‘Write an email asking a client for a meeting’ to the more specific ‘Write a warm friendly email to my boss telling her I won’t be able to attend the meeting on Friday because I have to take my dog to the vet. Appeal to her love of animals and assure her I’ll catch up with colleagues afterwards, so I won’t miss out on anything as she worries about productivity.’
The results? Well, I didn’t entirely hate it.
The process of briefing the bot can help you gather your thoughts and answer critical questions like what is the point of this email?
First, the pros
1. If you struggle with blank page syndrome or you’re prevaricator, it can help you get started. It can often be easier to edit than to start from scratch. (A ‘sh*tty first draft’ can be the best start.) As Professor Amanda Kirby writes, it could be also great for some neurodivergent people, especially those with executive functioning challenges or dyslexia.
2. Unsurprisingly the more specific you are with the prompt – such as giving advice on tone, and length as well as content – the better the result.
3. Just the process of briefing the bot can help you gather your thoughts and answer critical questions like what is the point of this email? And what do I want to happen next?
4. In places, it shows empathy. For the brief ‘Write a warm funny email telling a client that the project has been delayed’ it wrote: ‘I know how much you were looking forward to seeing the finished product, and believe me, we were too.’ Better than many service emails I’ve seen.
5. Grammar and spelling are mostly good. There’s generally decent logic and flow.
And now the cons
1. Almost all emails start with some variation of my most-hated generic opener: ‘I hope this email finds you well’.
2. The emails are way too long – on average 200 words (over double my recommendation of 80) and chock-full of corporate filler like ‘I understand that you may be busy and this request may not align with your schedule’. Even the ‘short’ email was 112 words.
3. Sentences are also way too long. This one (with some stick-a-fork-in-my-eye comma splices) was a whopping 40 words ‘Before I go, I just wanted to let you know that if there’s anything that you need from me before Friday, please let me know as soon as possible, I’ll make sure to take care of it before I leave.’ Horrible.
4. They’re full of stiff, starchy and stuffy business language that feels out of touch with our more conversational workplace such as ‘I apologise in advance if this request causes any inconvenience. I assure you that your input will be invaluable in ensuring the success of this presentation.’ Even when specified to write in a ‘warm, friendly tone’ it wrote: ‘I am writing to inform you that I will not be able to attend Friday’s meeting.’
5. To get even passable results, you need to take time to make your prompt incredibly precise and detailed. Enough time, in fact, to have written the email yourself. On top of that, if you understand the psychology behind persuasion and influence enough to write a great prompt, well then you’ll write a much better email than a chatbot!
But more than any of these things, the biggest downside right now is something that’s unfixable. It’s not you. Or me.
After all, great communication is far more than stringing together comprehensible sentences. It’s about building trust. And being genuine. And making connections.
In the workplace, great communication is often simply about being human. To cut through all the noise we have to make our communications feel personal every time.
We all hate dealing with chatbots. We can sniff them out from 100 paces, even if they’re as clever as ChatGPT. They feel fake. Inauthentic. Dishonest.
The sheer relief felt when talking to a real live human being! And that’s just when we have even the simplest of issues to tackle with a service provider. For anything more complicated, the feeling we’re communicating with a bot drives us crazy.
Undoubtedly it will, in the short-term, get overused by lazy writers for all sorts of emails. Its signature style will be recognised everywhere, however clever it is at emulating different tones of voice (check out its eerily good impersonation of Ryan Reynolds). We’ll know instantly that an email hasn’t been written by the sender, get p*ssed off and hit delete.
And ChatGPT emails will just become white noise, like those annoying sales emails you get with ‘Have you got 5 minutes?’ in the title. It will damage personal and organisational brands everywhere before we reset our expectations.
However, when the dust settles, ChatGPT will likely have its place alongside other AI writing tools. It will probably do great work at helping organisations optimise email writing for repetitive, process-driven tasks that need clarity more than personality.
Organisations should look at their entire workflow and establish where AI can fit in to bring the most benefits. AI isn’t the panacea for all our communication needs. (And nor, incidentally, is email.)
So, for now, ChatGPT can help you write ok-ish emails. If you’re happy with that, get stuck in. But if you want to be seen as human, well, you might just have to be one for now.