Updated: Apr 22
When you’re wanting to put your best foot forward in an email, boilerplate can seem the ideal solution. Pre-approved, polished content has a shiny appeal, especially when you’re producing a message that could alter the course of a project or your business. In such situations, you want to look and sound your best, and if you’re not certain you can do that on your own, why not copy someone else’s words?
Here’s why not: boilerplate may come across as polished, but it seldom sounds natural. Building an important email around boilerplate is like borrowing your best friend’s suit for a job interview. The jacket sleeves may be too long or the shoulders too tight. As you squirm in your seat trying to adjust your wardrobe so you appear professional, you end up presenting yourself as someone who’s not quite comfortable in their own skin.
Most emails based on boilerplate lack the ring of authenticity, particularly if boilerplate forms only part of the message. Just as most business readers quickly recognize a “form letter” when they see one, they readily pick up on shifts in style and tone from one part of a message to another. The effect is jarring, and it undermines trust.
When I think about how poorly boilerplate messages function, I’m reminded of a failed communication from a client to her team. The client was testing a new video-messaging app and wanted some quick feedback on the user experience. She sent everyone on the team a short email that read something like this:
I’ve created a VideoApp message just for you. Please open it and let me know your thoughts.
In a team culture in which people normally responded promptly to any message from the CEO, this time-sensitive message went unread. Why? Because it sounded to the team members like tinned spam rather than fresh, personalized content.
What are the clues that make this short message seem like boilerplate? The lack of an individualized greeting, for starters, as well as the phrase “just for you,” which usually shows up in promotional messages, not team messages. Both context and purpose are also missing, giving the message a generic feel.
Far from saving you time or face, in most cases, boilerplate compromises your writing voice. Unless you’ve written the repurposed content yourself, it will likely create the sense that you’re faking it till you make it. When you’re trying to build trustful relationships, that’s the worst kind of impression you can create.
Instead of relying on scraps from someone else’s writing table, ban boilerplate and try these five alternative ways to boost your writing productivity and connect with your readers:
1. Model a structure and style you admire
Modelling doesn’t mean copying. It means crafting a message in your own words so that it mimics a structure and style you know works well.
2. Build on a pre-fab foundation
Repurposed content can work if you reshape it to suit your audience’s needs. One way to kick-start your email writing is build your first draft from a message you've previously sent. Just make sure you allow yourself ample time for tailoring the message to your new audience.
3. Talk it out
Try “writing” your email via a voice recorder and then transcribe the recording. The words you need may come more easily to you through vocalizing than through keyboarding.
4. Worry more about customization than correctness
A personalized message with a misplaced comma or a sentence fragment will likely create a more positive impression than an impersonal message that’s perfectly groomed. Invest time in personalizing your email content, not obsessing over punctuation.
5. Use a cover message and marketing collateral
The cover message is an underused tool in the marketer’s toolkit. If you find it challenging to write long email messages, then don’t. Focus on crafting short, personalized cover messages that introduce a compelling piece of collateral. An easy way to personalize your email is to point to a particular aspect of the collateral that you think your audience will find interesting or helpful.
Banning boilerplate doesn’t need to mean sapping your productivity. On the contrary, the more you experiment with alternatives to canned content, the more energized both you and your writing will become.