The Art and Science of Working with AI

Our research on how to get the most out of AI indicates one overarching rule of thumb: the more detail you give in your prompts, the better the answer will be.

If you ask Microsoft 365 Chat a simple or open-ended question, it will answer in kind. But if you want more detail and refinement, the question must be more pointed. For instance, if you ask Copilot, what did I miss yesterday? it will offer up a slew of email and chat summaries that you were looped in on. For more precision, be more specific and detailed in the first interaction, e.g., what are my action items from yesterday for the Woodgrove account? That will deliver fine-tuned results that summarize what’s expected of you from meetings, long email threads, disparate chats, and comments in decks and documents.

“With traditional search, people have become so accustomed to being very concise,” says Tara Roth, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft 365 Customer Success Engineering. “You use just a few key words and get a lot of links back, and then do a lot of processing on your own. With prompting, you can be more verbose and descriptive about what you want to get the most accurate and relevant responses.”

Our research shows that there are four key building blocks of a successful prompt: start with the end in mind by explaining what you want Copilot to do; set the stage with any context or details; define any parameters, such as specific dates, documents, or emails that Copilot should look to; and tailor the delivery, or how you want Copilot to present its response.

Anatomy of a Prompt

To get the best response, it’s important to know how to frame and phrase your Copilot prompts. This example, best used in Microsoft 365 Chat, highlights the most important things to consider.

Get creative and experiment with different styles to hone in on answers that fit your needs. Try specifying tone (neutral, casual, professional) or giving guidance for what kind of language to use, i.e., language a non-technical person could understand. Analogies, poems, and even historical allegories (what is a moment in history I can use to explain the central message in this doc?) can be useful ways to help you process the information.

It’s also helpful to give Copilot a point of view from which to answer. Usually, that involves some explanation about who you are and what you’re trying to achieve so the AI can roleplay: You are a social media manager writing LinkedIn copy. You are a product marketer working on a new campaign. You are a coding tutor who is great at explaining Python to students. You can also ask for a response in the style of a specific persona or approach, like tell me how to solve this problem with the expertise of a Stanford business professor, or teach me about this esoteric company concept in a way a non-technical person could understand.

Another best practice: Ask Copilot to explain how it arrived at a response. “If you ask the model to explain itself, it will produce a better answer, ” Teevan says. “It’s similar to how math teachers ask students to show their work—they get better answers from the kids.”

AI excels at imitation—large language models work by mimicking human conversations—so try to give examples of what you’d like the output to look like. Write a catchy slogan for a new brand of toothpaste that whitens teeth and freshens breath, using the following example for inspiration: “Good things never change.”

It’s also useful to think of our relationship with AI through a sports analogy, say researchers Jake Hofman, Dan Goldstein, and David Rothschild, who study AI-augmented cognition at Microsoft. At one end of the spectrum, the researchers say, AI can function like a steroid, giving people a short-term superhuman boost—instantaneous email drafts! quick social media copy!—when they simply offload work to it. In the middle of the spectrum, AI is like a high-quality running sneaker: it can speed up routine, time-consuming tasks (think cleaning and reformatting data), freeing up time and making people more productive in the moment without any long-term consequences. Where AI begins to truly transform work, though, is on the other end of the spectrum, when it serves as a coach, improving people’s own capabilities over time instead of merely assisting them in the moment. With thoughtful design and use, the researchers explain, AI tools can augment people’s innate abilities—leading to unprecedented boosts in productivity.

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