February 14, 2023
Dear Thought Leaders: If ChatGPT Can Do What You Do, You’ve Got a Problem
Look familiar? As a PR pro who develops content for professional services firms, it certainly does to me.
Yet the above didn’t take weeks of focus groups, client calls and multiple rounds of editing to produce. Instead – at the behest of CB Insights’ CEO – it was written in less than two seconds by ChatGPT, the new AI-powered chatbot that has made headlines since its public rollout last November.
Those headlines might have you think that jobs like mine will go the way of the VCR. In my view, though, the real issue isn’t that AI can do my job. Sure, AI can help get things started, draft great SEO headlines, and effectively regurgitate basic information and summaries. But as numerous critics have shown, ChatGPT’s content is rife with inaccuracies and wooden prose – not to mention it’s really bad at jokes.
Perhaps most importantly, however, it is unoriginal by design. In formulating a response based on its ingestion of existing content on the internet, ChatGPT is essentially just “giving you some text that statistically is likely to represent the consensus view on whatever topic you ask it to comment on.” It’s no surprise CNET articles written by AI have come under fire for plagiarism.
An increasingly AI-powered content marketplace poses particular risks to professional services firms, who, with their stiff, jargon-filled language, already tend to sound alike. And not having fresh content could have real consequences: as our 2022 State of Digital & Content Marketing Report shows, more than two-thirds of respondents (71% of in-house counsel; 69% of C-suite members) cited articles from thought leaders as a critical factor when it comes to researching firms for potential hire.
In other words, if your insights or messaging can be easily imitated by ChatGPT, then why should anyone choose you?
To establish yourself as a true authority, you’ve got to go above and beyond the consensus view to create content that is unique, relevant, newsworthy and, above all, useful. Here are a few writing best practices to help rise above the noise – and outdo anything produced by ChatGPT.
In determining whether a certain text was written by a bot, a new app, ChatGPTZero, uses two indicators – one of which is “perplexity.” In a nutshell, the more complex a text, the more likely it was written by a human.
The temptation for professional services firms might be to make things more technical, complex, and jargon-ridden. That’s not the answer. While some more arcane language can be helpful – for example, to signal your expertise to certain target audience – remember that the broader goal is to make your content useful and engaging for busy readers.
One way to split the difference: be specific. Focus on a particular angle of a particular topic geared at a particular audience. Then deploy specifics to tell a story that makes a complex issue come alive: Frame the piece through a particular news hook, case study, or example; quote experts, cite relevant research or historical documents; use hypotheticals to put the reader in your shoes.
That’s what Jennifer Hull, a client of ours at Berkeley Research Group, did with a recent piece on crypto. Instead of writing a broad take on a subject that has saturated the internet for months, she focused on accounting standards for crypto assets – an emerging, niche issue in the space – and outlined key challenges and unique guidance using specific, timely examples (without being overly technical or dull). After the piece appeared in BRG’s ThinkSet digital magazine, it caught the attention of Accounting Today, which subsequently published a slightly adapted version for their site.
Write with voice
AI-powered content doesn’t typically read as coming from the voice of an individual in all their complexities. That said, neither does a lot of professional services firm content.
Examples like the bland mission statement at the top of this post should serve as a wake-up call to write with voice and personality.
- Ask yourself: Why should I be writing this vs., say, 100 other intellectual property attorneys –or a robot?
- What do I uniquely bring to this topic from my professional experience or personal history?
- And finally: Can I write like I speak?
To do so, tell stories. Use specific references. Deploy humor, charm, emotion. Draw on your own experiences. Read your piece out loud and ask yourself if it sounds like a human (you!) wrote it.
Vary sentence length and rhythm, too. The other indicator ChatGTPZero tests for, after all, is “burstiness,” described in this recent NPR article as the human tendency to write “some longer or complex sentences alongside shorter ones. AI sentences tend to be more uniform.”
Consider the apology email written by Andrew Benin, the CEO of Graza, a startup that makes squeezable bottles of olive oil. When holiday orders arrived late and badly packaged, he dashed off an 835-word, profoundly human email with this kicker:
“I hope that you stick it out with us on this crazy ride, because damn is Graza tasty, loveable and fun to use…As a small gesture (and keep in mind this email is going out to 10s of thousands of people and we are an 11 month old 5 person business LOL), I’ve created a code wewillgetbetter for $4.43 off any future order (this is truly what we can afford!)”
Authentic, clear, raw, charming, and written in an inimitable voice, the email received a 78% open rate and a resoundingly positive response. Other executive communicators should take note.
Say something new
If ChatGPT’s responses are essentially Frankensteined mashups of existing content – that cuts off (for now) in 2021 – the simple solution is to create something new.
That reinforces our longstanding advice to thought leaders. Don’t just repeat the consensus or tell people what they already know; instead have a unique point-of-view that advances the conversation. To do so, follow these three steps:
1). Frame your topic as a “how” or “why” question. This helps push past a simplistic summary of the issue to a more meaty analysis of why there’s a problem and/or how to address it. It also invites a particular audience and naturally raises the stakes. For instance, to start writing this article I wouldn’t say: I want to write about ChatGPT’s influence on professional services firms. Instead, I’d try: How can professional services firms stand out in an increasingly AI-powered content landscape?
2). Evaluate what’s already been said about the topic. This is where you play ChatGPT – do the research and see what’s already out there. Has what you want to say already been written? If so, try refocusing your question: Is there a more particular audience you can address? A more niche issue that hasn’t gotten as much attention? A timely news hook that can help reframe the piece in a fresh way?
Alternatively, look to yourself: Do you have a unique response to existing solutions? Different solutions to the same problem? A new or more illuminating way to articulate it?
3). Discover what you can uniquely add to the conversation. The key word here is “add.” Don’t contribute to the noise. Engage with what’s already out there and make sure you’ve got a unique and timely contribution. That’s where the two points above come in: leverage your unique expertise, experiences, and voice – and keep the conversation moving forward, not backwards.
Above all, ask yourself: Is this relevant? Newsworthy? Novel? Useful?
That’s what another client of ours, JTC Americas, did in a piece last year about the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Despite a flurry of talk about new CRA reforms, the group noticed one element was missing from the conversation that also aligned with its objectives as a specialty fund administrator – namely, that the Opportunity Zones program could help community banks receive CRA credits. By drawing on their unique expertise, they were able to add to a timely conversation about CRA reform in a way that only they could.
The more things change, the more things stay the same
ChatGPT might help with some basic elements of writing. But it won’t change the fact that the most compelling thought leadership, messaging, executive communications, and web copy is generated by real people – thinking human beings with a unique voice, perspective, and expertise.
As The Atlantic’s Annie Lowery wrote in a recent column:
“As a rule, when companies can substitute machines for people, they will.… But even if ChatGPT can spit out a pretty good paragraph on AI, it can’t interview AI and labor experts, nor can it find historical documents, nor can it assess the quality of studies of technological change and employment. It creates content out of what is already out there, with no authority, no understanding, no ability to correct itself, no way to identify genuinely new or interesting ideas.”
Instead, writers could think of ChatGPT (in its current form, at least) as a tool that can free them up from more mundane content production to focus on complex, in-depth work. Thought leaders should do the same.
“In many ways, AI will help people use expertise better,” MIT economics professor David Autor told Lowery. “It means that we’ll specialize more.”