Have you ever read something and gotten the distinct impression that you were being “sold” to? A “salesy” tone in writing can feel false, and if the people reading it are participants in an online course, it can annoy them and perhaps even prevent them from engaging with the content they are trying to learn.

ChatGPT – and likely other AI text generation tools – has the potential to lead us down this dangerous path if we’re not careful when using it to help us write online course content. It has the tendency to add a lot of adverbs into its writing and gives the impression that everything is “amazingly”, “highly”, and “wonderfully” done.

When we asked ChatGPT why it uses a lot of adverbs in its writing, it had this to say:

“I don’t have personal beliefs or intentions, but I generate responses based on patterns in the text data I was trained on. If it seems like I use a lot of adverbs or come across as ‘salesy’ at times, it could be due to a few reasons:

  • Training Data: My responses are generated based on a mixture of licensed data, data created by human trainers, and publicly available data. If the training data included a variety of writing styles or if it included sales-oriented language, that might influence the way I generate text.
  • Promotional Text: Adverbs are often used in promotional or persuasive writing to add emphasis and convince the reader of a particular point. If the training data contained promotional or marketing content, it might be reflected in my responses.
  • Contextual Generation: I generate responses based on the context provided in a user’s query. If a user asks a question that can be interpreted as seeking persuasive or enthusiastic language, I might generate responses in that style.

It’s important to note that I don’t have personal awareness, emotions, or intentions, so I don’t intentionally aim to sound “salesy.” If you prefer a different writing style or have specific requests for responses, you can simply let me know, and I can adjust my tone and style accordingly.”

This is interesting, right? We can even ask ChatGPT why it does the things it does!

Don’t get us wrong – we certainly appreciate getting to use ChatGPT as a writing partner from time to time. It can be very helpful. But ChatGPT may sometimes give incorrect information or write in a tone that doesn’t fit the context, which can put off your learners and detract from their learning.

So, how do we get ahead of this? Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Craft a specific initial prompt.
  2. Give ChatGPT further clear prompts to hone its second draft, and subsequent drafts if desired.
  3. Compare the tone of the text it’s giving you in its writing to the tone you (hopefully) already identified for your course design project. (Do you want to be entertaining? Informative? Concise? Conversational?)
  4. Use your critical thinking and writing skills to recraft the text where necessary and desired.

Want to see an example of the first two steps? Here’s a query we made related to a course we were designing on the topic of chronic pain. This example includes a third prompt to get the passage to our desired course reading level as well.

Write me a short, two paragraph story about a person living with chronic pain. Who are they, what caused their chronic pain, and what difficulties have they been having?

In a quaint cottage at the edge of town, lived Lily, a woman with a spirit as strong as the mountains that surrounded her. Her life had been colored by the strokes of chronic pain, a relentless companion that had taken residence within her body since a car accident many years ago. The accident had left her with a back injury that refused to heal fully, leaving her days fraught with discomfort and nights disrupted by sleeplessness. But despite the constant ache, Lily’s determination remained unshaken.

Her daily routines were a delicate balancing act, a symphony of pacing herself and adapting to her body’s unpredictable rhythm. Mundane tasks often transformed into uphill battles, like gardening sessions becoming moments of both solace and struggle. Social gatherings posed their own challenges; Lily had to gauge her energy levels meticulously, often opting to stay back while her friends ventured out. Yet, her spirit soared higher than her pain. She turned to art and writing, using creativity as an outlet to express her thoughts and emotions that words often failed to capture. Through her resilience, Lily taught those around her the power of determination in the face of relentless adversity.

Now make it half as long and less “flowery” in your language. The audience who is reading this is health care professionals, so it has to look more professional.

Lily, a resilient individual residing on the outskirts, grapples with chronic pain stemming from a past car accident that left her with an enduring back injury. Her daily life is a meticulous navigation of discomfort, impacting her sleep and routine activities. Lily’s ability to manage her pain is evident in her measured approach to tasks, such as adjusting her gardening pace to accommodate her limitations. Despite her challenges, she finds solace in creative outlets like art and writing. Lily’s story underscores the significance of tenacity in the face of persistent adversity, serving as a poignant reminder for healthcare practitioners of the multifaceted impacts of chronic pain on individuals’ lives.

Please reduce the reading level of this passage by two grades.

Lily lives on the edge of town and deals with ongoing pain from a past car crash that hurt her back. Her days are tough due to the pain, making it hard for her to sleep and do regular things. She’s careful with her activities, like taking her time with gardening. Lily likes doing art and writing to cope. Her story shows how important it is to stay strong when facing long-lasting challenges like pain. This can help healthcare professionals better understand how chronic pain affects people’s lives.

You can see how we had to keep working with ChatGPT to give us something more aligned with what we were looking for. And, of course, subject matter experts working on the course would have also worked with the passage from here, to make it even more useful to our purposes.

In summary, ChatGPT and other AI text generation tools can be very helpful, but we need to query them effectively to make sure they support – and don’t hinder – our online course projects. Follow these steps to keep their work aligned with your intentions and goals and hopefully you’ll not only be able to continue to design excellent learning experiences but perhaps even save a little time along the way.

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