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Working with Artificial Intelligence Series: Memos in Minutes

In the current era of remarkable technological advancement, a standout development has been the emergence of generative artificial intelligence (generative AI). This specific subset of AI generates new content to answer almost any request. All it needs from its user is a few words of text.  

Each instalment in the Working with Artificial Intelligence Series will delve into a specific use case, illustrating how generative AI can be effectively used in diverse scenarios. We will investigate the most suitable tools for each task, reveal the most effective prompts (meaning, the set of plain language instructions or questions for the generative artificial intelligence model to respond to) and share insider tricks to speed up the journey from input to ideal output.   

Remember that when using AI tools, especially generative ones like ChatGPT, adherence to best practices is vital. Reviewing and following the Government of Canada’s Guide on the use of Generative AI ensures responsible and ethical use of such technologies. 

This article covers three topics at the intersection of memo writing and generative AI:  

  • what prompts to use to write an effective memo using generative AI 
  • the key information to include when writing a memo using generative AI 
  • the benefits and limitations of using generative AI for memo writing

Writing a memo using AI

Animated concept of a room filled with identical robots writing at desks.

Memos are crucial in today's workplaces, acting as key channels for circulating diverse types of information such as policy changes, instructions and project updates. They are a formal and detailed medium that can be easily archived and referenced, facilitating transparency, accountability and coordination among team members. Creating an effective memo is an art, requiring a mix of concision, clarity and relevance. 

The following use case centres on using large language models (LLM), specifically OpenAI’s ChatGPT (but will work with any LLM-based tool) to aid in drafting effective memos. 

There is nothing complicated about getting ChatGPT to generate a memo, it is as simple as asking the application to write a memo. The first step is to provide it with a prompt, or, in other words, a set of instructions or questions. A prompt guides and directs ChatGPT on the type of information or output desired. Offering clear and concise prompts ensures the tool produces the intended outcomes. The following example contains a simple prompt.  

Prompt:

Write a memo

ChatGPT response:

From: [Your Name and Title]

Subject: [Recipient Name],

Dear [Recipient's Name],

I hope this memo finds you well. I am writing to inform you about important updates and decisions that need your attention.

[First Key Point]

[Explain the first key point or update in detail. Provide any necessary background information and reasons for the decision if applicable.]

[Second Key Point]

[Explain the second key point or update in detail. Include any relevant data or statistics to support the decision or update.]

[Third Key Point, if applicable]

[If there are additional points or updates to be addressed, list and explain them accordingly.]

Action Required:

[Clearly state any specific action that the recipient needs to take in response to the memo. Be specific about deadlines and any other relevant details.]

Key Dates:

[List any important dates related to the updates mentioned in the memo, such as implementation dates, training sessions, or review meetings.]

Additional Information:

[If there are any supplementary materials, attachments, or references related to the memo's content, mention them here.]

If you have any questions or need further clarification, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or the appropriate department.

Thank you for your attention to these matters. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

[Your name]

[Your title]

[Your contact information]

As ChatGPT is a generative AI language model, results may be vastly different from the above draft. However, the above draft is also far from the desired result. To enable ChatGPT to generate a high-quality, effective memo, it is crucial to provide it with as many specific details as possible. This situation is like expecting an assistant to write a memo without providing any details, which would undoubtedly lead to difficulties in meeting the expectations. In fact, they would most likely not even attempt to write the memo without some of the details below. 

  • Subject of the memo: What is the main topic or purpose of the memo? A main topic or purpose helps crafting a focused and targeted message. 
  • Intended audience: Who will be reading this memo? Understanding the audience can guide the tone and complexity of the language used, and ensure the content is relevant to them. 
  • Key points or messages: What are the essential details or tasks the readership should comprehend or perform after consulting the memo? 
  • Supporting information: Any data, statistics, or supporting details that bolster the main points. This might include background context, explanations or rationale. 
  • Desired action or outcome: What action is expected of the audience following the reading of this memo? This might include specific actions or decisions to be made. 
  • Tone: Should the memo be formal, informal, urgent or informational? The tone can influence how the message is received and understood. 

In the given example, let us continue working off the template that ChatGPT has provided by feeding the missing information in the next set of input text. Remember that ChatGPT is not secure, therefore it is important to avoid sharing sensitive information with the tool, including any personal, classified, protected or proprietary information. 

Follow-up prompt:

Complete the memo using the following information:

From: J. Smith

Subject: Annual National Public Service Week Picnic

Recipient's Name: All Staff

First Key Point: All are welcome

All are welcomed to this annual event and employees are encouraged to bring members of their family

Second Key Point: Dress code

Business casual

Action Required: Confirm attendance

to ensure plenty of food and drinks

Key Dates:

Wednesday, September 13, 9 am to 2 pm at Community Park

Name: J. Smith

Title: Executive Assistant

Contact Information: J.Smith@Canada.ca

By providing ChatGPT with the additional details, it can fill in the blanks of the memo.  

ChatGPT response:

From: J. Smith, Executive Assistant

Subject: Annual National Public Service Week Picnic

Dear All Staff,

I hope this memo finds you well. I am writing to inform you about our upcoming Annual National Public Service Week Picnic, and some decisions that require your attention.

**All are welcomed**

All staff are invited to this annual event. We encourage everyone to bring members of their family, to not only celebrate our company's success, but also to foster a closer bond among our employees and their loved ones.

**Dress Code**

For this event, the dress code will be business casual. We want everyone to be comfortable while maintaining a professional image as we represent our company.

Action Required:

To ensure we have enough food and drinks for everyone, we need you to confirm your attendance and the number of family members who will be joining us. Please provide this information by replying to this memo or sending an email to J.Smith@Canada.ca.

Key Dates:

The picnic will take place on Wednesday, September 13, from 9 am to 2 pm at Community Park.

If you have any questions or need further clarification, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Thank you for your attention to these matters. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

J. Smith

Executive Assistant

J.Smith@Canada.ca

This outcome is an acceptable memo with all the necessary details and clear recipient expectations. However, it seems formulaic and lacks creativity, mainly because the AI was asked to modify an existing memo instead of creating a fresh one. For a more creative result, provide all the necessary details upfront with the initial memo request. This lets the AI structure the memo around the details provided, and not the details around the memo provided.   

Let us try this again, this time by providing ChatGPT with additional details about the memo upfront.  

Prompt:

Write a memo with the following details:

  • Subject of the Memo: Annual Company Picnic
  • Intended Audience: All employees
  • Key Points or Messages: All are welcome to this annual event and employees are encouraged to bring members of their family
  • Supporting Information:
    - Date: Wednesday, September 13
    - Time: 9 am to 2 pm
    - Location: Community Park
    - Dress code: business casual
  • Desired Action or Outcome: Confirm attendance (to ensure plenty of food and drinks)
  • Tone: friendly but formal

ChatGPT response:

Subject: Annual Company Picnic - Save the Date and RSVP

Dear Team,

We are delighted to announce our Annual Company Picnic, a cherished tradition here at our organization, and warmly extend an invitation to each and every one of you. This year, we want to make this event extra special, and we would love for you to bring your family members along for a day filled with fun and camaraderie.

The picnic will be held on Wednesday, September 13, from 9 am to 2 pm. We've selected the scenic Community Park as the venue, providing us with plenty of open space to enjoy a variety of activities. In keeping with our casual yet professional culture, we recommend a business casual dress code for the day.

We are making arrangements to ensure plenty of delicious food and refreshing drinks for everyone. To help us plan effectively, we kindly request that you confirm your attendance, as well as the number of family members you'll be bringing along, by [insert RSVP date here].

This event offers a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our community, enjoy some time outside of our usual work environment, and create lasting memories with our families and colleagues. We truly hope to see all of you there.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and for being a valued part of our team.

Warm regards,

[Your Name]

[Your Position]

This outcome is much better and almost ready for publication. Remember, the more detailed and specific the input text, the better the AI can assist in generating a meaningful and effective output, saving time and effort. 

Now let's take this to the next level

Small robot wearing a gold breastplate along with a red cape, helmet and boots.

The above example was quite simple. Using generative AI would have saved at most a few minutes. Where ChatGPT really shines is in its ability to consume large volumes of data and to quickly summarize the content. For example, let us create a memo based on the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s Directive on Social Insurance Number. Including information from the Directive is not an issue because it is available to the public and therefore does not contain any sensitive information. 

In the example below, the first six points of the directive were included in the input text. While only points one and six are displayed below with an ellipsis in between, the full text should be included for the AI to produce the desired result. Notice that the entire article was not posted because ChatGPT has a limit on how much text can be added to the input box before it returns an error. This limit is difficult to predict but can be anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000 words depending on which model is being used (the real limit is measured in tokens, in which a token represents a single character or an entire word depending on the context). 

Prompt:

1. Effective date

1.1 This directive takes effect on October 26, 2022.

1.2 This directive replaces the Directive on Social Insurance Number dated April 1, 2008.

.

.

.

6. Application

6.1 This directive applies as described in section 6 of the Policy on Privacy Protection.

6.2 This directive does not apply to the use of the SIN by the provinces or territories or in the private sector.

6.3 The directive does not apply to a government institution whose head has been delegated, under subsection 71(6) of the Privacy Act, the authority to approve new personal information banks or substantial modifications to existing personal information banks that include the SIN. The head of such a government institution will, however, be required to comply with the specified terms and conditions related to the handling of the SIN outlined in the delegation.

Can you write a short memo based on the Directive on Social Insurance Number?

The goal of the memo is to remind employees of the policy. Draft the memo as short as possible, while keeping all key points.

ChatGPT response:

Subject: Key Points - Directive on Social Insurance Number

Dear Team,

This memo serves to remind everyone about the essential points of the "Directive on Social Insurance Number" which took effect on October 26, 2022, and replaced the previous directive from April 1, 2008.

Collection & Use of Social Insurance Number (SIN): Collect SIN only for purposes authorized under specific Acts, Regulations, or under programs approved by the Treasury Board. Notification must be provided to individuals when collecting their SIN, explaining why it is collected, how it will be used, and the consequences of not providing it.

Use and Disclosure of SIN: Any use or disclosure of SIN must be consistent with and related to the authorized purposes. Any routine or systematic disclosure of SIN must be done through a contract or information-sharing agreement.

Authorization for new collection or use of SIN: Any new collection or consistent use of SIN must be related to administering pensions, income tax, health or social programs, and is consistent with the Department of Employment and Social Development Act. For a new collection or use of SIN, either refer expressly to the SIN in new or amended statutes or regulations or establish implicit legal authority. Approval from Treasury Board Ministers is necessary for a new collection or use of SIN based on implicit legal authority.

Identifying SIN Use: The SIN use must be identified in Personal Information Bank (PIB) descriptions, citing the legal authority under which the number is collected and the purposes for which it is used.

Adherence to these principles in daily work is crucial. If any clarification is needed, please feel free to reach out.

Best,

[Your Name]

[Your Position]

Before you go, some food for thought 

Large language models and generative AI can save a significant amount time. Such a task would typically require several hours of reading and drafting but was accomplished within minutes with the help of ChatGPT.    

Generative AI systems can draft fluent and coherent text, but it is essential to check the accuracy of their output. For this reason, it is best to only use generative AI to generate memos about topics you are familiar with so that you can be effective in reviewing the output's quality. This is important because these models do not truly understand the world or the facts they present; they are only responding based on patterns from training data. Hence, they might output plausible but incorrect or entirely made-up information. This is often referred to as the AI “hallucinating.”  

In other words, AI does not reason. This lack of reasoning could unintentionally produce inappropriate or harmful content, lacking human-like judgment of appropriateness or ethics. Always apply critical thinking when using AI tools. They are meant to assist, not replace human judgment and oversight. 

Now that you have learned more about how to write a memo using generative AI, it is your turn to try it. 

Resources 

Brian Wray

Brian Wray

I am passionate about using technology to improve the work life of public servants. – Je suis passionné par l’utilisation de la technologie pour améliorer la vie professionnelle des fonctionnaires.

Caraquet, NB

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