May 15, 2024

What is Prompting for AI? The Beginner's Guide to AI Prompt Writing

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Prompting is the process of providing instructions or "prompts" to an artificial intelligence system, particularly with chatbots like ChatGPT or Claude. When you type something into the input box of an AI chatbot, you are essentially "prompting" the AI to respond in a certain way based on your input.

Effective prompting allows you to have more natural conversations with AI and get useful outputs tailored to your needs. Whether you want the AI to analyze data, generate content, answer questions, or even just brainstorm ideas with you, crafting a well-structured prompt is key.

How does prompting work?

At its core, prompting is giving the chatbot enough context and instructions so that its response aligns with your goals. This usually involves combining some or all of the following elements into your prompt:

  • Task description: Clearly stating what you want the AI to do
  • Context: Providing relevant background information or data
  • Role: Specifying what role or persona you want the AI to take on
  • Requirements: Listing out style, format, or content requirements
  • Boundaries: Setting limitations on what to exclude or avoid
  • Reasoning: Asking the AI to explain its reasoning or approach

A basic prompt might just be a task description and some context. A more complex prompt has very specific requirements, boundaries, and even asks the AI to break down its reasoning.

A diagram demonstrating the different elements that make up a good prompt. On the left are the elements of a basic prompt, in the middle are the elements that make up a focused prompt, and on the right are the elements that make up a comprehensive prompt.

The more details and guidance you can pack into your initial prompt, the better the AI's response will align with your needs. However, prompting is an iterative process - you can always refine your prompt further by giving the AI additional instructions based on its previous output.

What is prompting NOT?

Prompting chatbots is distinctly different from several other types of human-computer interactions:

Prompting is NOT searching on the internet

Entering a basic query into a search engine like Google is very different from prompting an AI assistant. Effective prompts require providing much more context, specificity, and natural language instructions compared to search queries.

Prompting is NOT programming or coding

When prompting an AI, you are not directly coding, programming, or technically developing the AI system itself. You are simply providing instructional text inputs for the pre-trained AI model to interpret and respond to. No technical coding skills are required for prompting.

Prompting is NOT one-word commands

Unlike voice assistants that may respond to basic utterances like "set a timer" or "play music", prompting large language models requires communicating via full sentences and paragraphs of context-rich instructions, not one-word commands.

The key distinction is that prompting chatbots involves an open-ended, conversational exchange of contextual information using natural language inputs. It is not as simple as voice commands, searches, code, or short queries. Using it in a way it’s not intended is likely to land you with a bad result.

3 tips for good prompting:

Prompting AI chatbots is an iterative skill that takes practice to master. But even beginner prompters can see better results by following some simple tips and best practices:

  1. Start broad, then get more specific – Don't try to pack too much into your very first prompt. Start with just the core objective and context, then iteratively refine by adding more specific requirements and boundaries based on the AI's initial response.
  2. Give examples when possible – If you can provide an example of the kind of output you want, whether that's text formatting, writing style, or type of analysis, that gives the AI a very clear reference point to work from.
  3. Push the AI with follow-up prompts – Have a back-and-forth conversation instead of just accepting the very first output. Keep prompting the AI to take a different perspective, dive deeper, or fulfill additional conditions until you get a truly optimal result.

So what is prompting? It’s just a conversation with AI. As generative AI continues to advance rapidly, those who develop expert prompting abilities will be able to maximize the time-saving potential of these tools. Prompt writing is quickly becoming an essential skill for knowledge workers across industries. Start building your prompting muscles today, and you'll be able to work smarter and more efficiently in our AI-augmented future.

Want a little more practice? Our AI academy is packed with courses taught by industry experts, including our popular Intro to Prompt Writing course.

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Greg Shove
Section Staff