How to write really good AI prompts
If I had R10 for each time someone asked me to give an opinion on ChatGPT in the last month or so, I’d treat myself to a salmon dish at Tasha’s. Possibly the grilled salmon (which costs R288). Probably the salmon tartare (R292).
That little paragraph up there? ChatGPT can’t do this…yet. Not because it doesn’t have the capacity to generate humour (it does, kind of) but because its output lacks nuance. It can’t produce “inside jokes”, reflect readers’ authentic experiences, use their own language, help them feel seen, or truly delight them. Unsurprisingly perhaps, ChatGPT is also woefully, painfully Global-North-centric.
Here’s the R10 opinion you came for:
ChatGPT is amazing. I’m excited to see where it goes and what its competitors throw at us. (Hey Google, “Bard” is a weird name.) And it currently offers more opportunity than threat to my profession, as “…a source of inspiration…a catalyst for ideas, a seed bed for innovation…but not an end in itself” (Charlie Stewart’s MarkLives column, #ClicksnTricks: ChatGPT’s poetic licence).
The internet would have us believe that well over 1 million people are using ChatGPT at the moment. But I would have you believe that, barring the undeniable novelty, 70% of them aren’t getting much value out of it.
Like the salmon tartare at Tasha’s, what you put into ChatGPT is precisely what you get out. Your ingredients, or “text prompts”, are everything. So let’s delve into “prompt engineering” or how to write effective text inputs for AI content generators.
I toyed, briefly, with the idea of a metaphorical move from the exorbitant delicacy of Tasha’s to the conveyor belt of sausage-making, but I think you get it, dear reader. Let’s just begin.
The must-haves of prompt engineering
TL;DR: You need to exert as much control over your input as possible so you “brief” it as precisely as possible and the output matches your needs as closely as possible.
You can brief an AI using single words, entire statements or a chunk of existing data. You can ask questions or make comments. You can provide instructions or examples. You can also fine-tune your prompts as you go, based on what the AI offers up. Before you start, here’s what you need to
1. Use clear, concise and straightforward language.
Briefly explain the development of the dish salmon tartare in the context of French cuisine, citing related historical events if any.
Explain the French history of salmon tartare in a catchy way, with examples.
I asked ChatGPT for its opinions on grammar. It said, “Use proper grammar: I know, I know, grammar isn’t always the most exciting thing to think about, but proper grammar makes a big difference when it comes to getting the results you’re looking for. So, take the time to proofread your prompts and make sure they’re grammatically correct.”
2. Know the desired objective of your prompt so you can tell the AI what you’re ultimately trying to create.
Explain the French history of salmon tartare in a catchy way, with examples, to be used as copy for a fresh fish website.
Write a 150-word sales pitch, to be used over the phone, to market a new eco-friendly car that runs on renewable energy sources.
3. Find a balance between specific and open-ended inputs.
Don’t do this:
Write about bats.
What will you get? Nothing of value. A bland, generic, uninspiring block of waffle that is nowhere near as solid as even Wikipedia. (Now there’s a sentence I truly never thought I’d write.) Instead, try something like this:
Write 500 words, suitable for high school students, on the nocturnal habits and echolocation abilities of bats.
4. Express what you want with an example.
Consider this addition to the bat prompt above:
…for example: the decibel range at which bats can hear compared to humans.
Generate a list of the best current books on self-improvement, including their author, title and a brief summary of the book’s content.
Write an article that persuades readers to start a blog. Include 3 strong arguments to support your point and include a call to action at the end.
5. Include keywords and keyphrases, as if you were writing for search engine optimisation.
Please generate an informal article about the benefits of a plant-based diet, including improved health and environmental sustainability.
6. Give constraints and limitations to help the AI come up with ‘creative’ solutions.
Write a blog post on the importance of developing a morning routine that is: — no longer than 500 words — uses no more than 5 examples — speaks to entrepreneurs and creatives.
So, what’s the secret sauce?
It’s the quality of your thinking about a text prompt and how effectively you translate that thinking into the wording of the prompt.
To achieve your intended outcome, length and structure, you’ll need to provide as much particular, descriptive, and thorough information as possible, expressed as clearly as you can.
On, and know this, if you’re a good, strong writer now, AI will likely augment your work. If you own, work for or work in a content or copy sausage factory, you’re stuffed. Pardon the pun.
 Per Jenna Burrell, ICFJ, 2023: “ChatGPT…has an issue of replicating the bias it was built on. The software was built using a large amount of data, but the tool cannot “learn” — it can only reproduce and regurgitate the data it already has. Because ChatGPT was built by collecting massive amounts of information from the internet, the information it gives back will be as biased as the information it was trained on….”
 I’m happy to disclose that, to write this column, I (not an AI) read 12 different articles and generated 21 pages of notes. I spent about 4 hours on research and about 2 hours on writing. I did, however, use ChatGPT to help me come up with the idea for the meme that accompanies this piece, although I created it myself in Canva.
 I am currently creating a ‘How to maximise your AI inputs’ course for corporates, just in case AI tanks my writing business. As Ken Scudder (PRSA, 2023) points out, “Someone has to figure out what to type into the bot to get the desired result.”