Business writing essentials

See into your reader’s mind with ChatGPT

3 minute read

When writing goes wrong, a lack of human empathy is often to blame. Surprisingly, AI can help you get it back.

You sweat for days over a report or proposal, submit it and then … crickets. All that effort and for what?

Hours working up your big idea to make everything better, quicker or more successful. Days wrestling gigabytes of data to the ground. And all you get for your troubles is virtual indifference – a digital ‘meh’.

It happens with email, too. You tap out a message, hit send and wait for a reply that never comes. Or worse, you trigger a puzzled or even angry reply to what you thought was a perfectly reasonable suggestion or request.

You ask yourself ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ But the likely truth is that it’s not them, it’s you.

Writing for ourselves

When messages and documents fail like this, the blame often lies with forgetting one thing: the reader. Too often, we end up writing for ourselves instead of the person we’re writing to.

Our writing doesn’t land well because it focuses too much on our own point of view and not enough on the reader’s.

It’s not that we can’t empathise. But we get so tied up in our busy, often stressful lives that projecting ourselves into the position of the person we’re writing for can be incredibly difficult.

The problem can be doubly hard to spot precisely because we’re writing from the way we see things. After all, everything makes sense to us. So it can come as a real shock when we don’t get the positive reaction we were hoping for.

Then there’s the fact that writing itself is a solitary process. Alone with a laptop and a full to-do list, it’s only natural that we focus mainly on our own priorities.

We’d be much less likely to do this if we were speaking to the other person. (There are many differences between speaking and writing, as I explained in this article).


Why this works

Empathy is one of our most human traits. So if you’re looking for a way to get more of it into your professional writing, the last thing you’d probably turn to is a bot. Yet that is exactly what generative AI apps like ChatGPT can do.

To be clear, AI can’t ‘think’, no matter how much it may seem like it can. But this also means that it can’t focus on its own needs, for the simple reason that it doesn’t have any. AI is totally objective in the way that humans aren’t.

It probably won’t do all this automatically, though. For it to work, you’ll need to remind the AI that the people we write for are just that – people. (To be fair, we all need reminding of that from time to time.)

But the simple prompt below is an easy and powerful way to shift your focus from your needs to those of whoever will read whatever you’re writing.


What to do

Copy and paste this prompt into ChatGPT or GPT-4, adding your specifics in the gaps:

I am writing a [document type] on [topic]. The [document type] is for a [job title/role] in a [organisation/type of organisation] in [location]. What aspects will most appeal to their individual human interest? Please present the results as a bullet list.

Below is an example of a typical response. (I used GPT-4, which is currently available only to ChatGPT Plus subscribers. But the free version of ChatGPT also works.)

ChatGPT report-writing prompt and response. Full description below under summary field 'Open description and transcript of image'
Open description and transcript of image

ChatGPT chat screen showing this prompt:

‘I am writing a report on GDPR. The report is for a regional manager in a high-street bank in the UK. What aspects will most appeal to their individual human interest? Please present the results as a bullet list.’

And the GPT-4 response:
Sure, here are some aspects of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that might appeal to the human interest of a regional manager in a high-street bank in the UK:

  1. Customer Trust: GDPR compliance can enhance the trust of customers in the bank’s data handling practices. This can lead to improved customer relationships and loyalty.
  2. Data Security: GDPR mandates stringent data protection measures. This can reduce the risk of data breaches, which can have significant financial and reputational implications.
  3. Transparency: GDPR requires clear communication with customers about how their data is used. This transparency can improve customer satisfaction and trust.
  4. Competitive Advantage: Banks that are GDPR compliant can use this as a competitive advantage, as it demonstrates their commitment to protecting customer data.
  5. Regulatory Compliance: Non-compliance with GDPR can result in hefty fines. Ensuring compliance can prevent these financial penalties.
  6. Data Governance: GDPR can help improve data governance and management within the bank, leading to more efficient operations and decision-making.
  7. Employee Data Protection: GDPR also applies to employee data, so compliance can improve the bank’s relationship with its employees and reduce the risk of internal data breaches.
  8. International Business: For banks that do business internationally, GDPR compliance is crucial. It can facilitate smoother business operations within the European Union.
  9. Innovation and Digital Transformation: Compliance with GDPR can drive innovation and digital transformation, as it requires banks to rethink their data handling practices.
  10. Risk Management: GDPR compliance can be seen as part of the bank’s broader risk management strategy, aligning with the interests of a regional manager in risk mitigation.

Give it a go. The response may not be perfect, but I guarantee that it will help you step into the reader’s shoes. It’s surprising how often that’s all it takes to get a positive response instead of virtual tumbleweed.


Image credit: Juicy FOTO / Shutterstock



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Rob Ashton (our founder) posts mainly about writing and the brain – a topic he's been researching for seven years. His personal website includes a free course based on his work.

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